Captain Chesley Sullenberger became a hero in 208 seconds. After both engines on U.S. Airways Flight 1549 lost function, he landed the plane on the Hudson River and saved the lives of all 155 passengers. His story was dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson,” and his actions were applauded across the nation.
Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Sully, starring Tom Hanks as Sullenberger, attempts to explore the nature of those actions. The film begins in the days immediately after the crash, presenting a troubled Sully, plagued by doubts and haunted by nightmares. A bureaucratic National Transportation Safety Board investigation uses computer simulations to claim that he could have landed safely back at Laguardia or in New Jersey, avoiding the harrowing water landing. At the same time, he has a vision of a plane flying in low and crashing into the heart of downtown New York. His wife is being harangued by reporters at their house, and he is living in a hotel. Facing trauma, questioning, and constant press attention, he adamantly stands by his actions.
From this beginning, the film moves through the subsequent days and presents the water landing in a series of flashbacks to maintain tension and interest throughout. We witness the ordeal from various viewpoints, with the most fascinating, the cockpit, mostly withheld until the end. Each scene depicting the landing and subsequent evacuation portrays the fear and amazement of the moment through masterful directing. Instead of resorting to excessive dramatic music or other gimmicks, Eastwood lets the acting and cinematography evoke the terror in each passenger, the uncertainty in the stewardesses, and the stoic determination of Sully as he decides to land on the river.
Hanks’s performance drives each scene and makes the understated, humble captain a moving and endearing figure. His determination and calm demeanor during the landing give way to an almost desperate look as he searches the flooding cabin for any last passengers. Hanks expresses the breadth of Sully’s experience, including the surreal difficulty of the days after the landing. He is backed up by solid performances from Aaron Eckhardt as the first officer on the plane, and Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, Lorraine.
The movie contends with inherent issues of timing and pacing. Turning an event that lasted about four minutes into a feature-length film clearly requires deft maneuvering. Mostly, the film avoids lag, with a consistent tension during the landing scenes and a fascinating introspection from Captain Sullenberger in its aftermath. Two flashbacks to Sully’s youth seem unnecessary and add little to the overall narrative. Beyond that, some portions of the investigative hearing scene just before the climactic and final re-examination of the landing seem dragged out when the outcome should be clear to any viewer. Outside of these issues, the time-jumping structure, moving between the aftermath and the crash itself, keeps the movie interesting and intense.
Though Sully maintains this feeling of intensity throughout its duration, it does not embellish the story. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Clint Eastwood spoke about Sully’s place among the never-ending barrage of superhero movies. He said, “I just long for reality rather than these made-up things.” Themes of reality, humanity, and even simplicity run through parts of the film. Sully refuses to believe the computer simulations that say he made the wrong decision. He cites the “human factor” in a situation like this. So instead of trying to introduce new and revolutionary factors into cinema, Eastwood revels in the simple reality of an extraordinary man.
Sully explores some of the same concepts and themes as Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper: the idea of a realistic hero, of unimaginable courage coming from one person, is the crux of the film. In both movies, Eastwood explores the consequences of heroic actions and the interior lives of those who perform these amazing feats. While American Sniper tended toward the grayer side, exploring Chris Kyle’s PTSD, Sully tends toward the lighter side.
In the end, despite the pain an experience like this causes, this is a movie about the best human beings have to offer each other. It is about the first responders who came together to save the 155 men and women standing on the wings of the sinking plane or floundering in the freezing water. It is about the city that has shown time and time again that it remains resilient in the face of adversity. It is about the captain who made unbelievably difficult choices in seconds and risked everything to protect his passengers. And most of all, Sully is a movie about heroism.
Featured Image By Warner Bros. Pictures