Exquisitely acted, masterfully edited, beautifully scored, and strikingly shot, Sully is Clint Eastwood’s best directorial effort since Unforgiven. Given the subject matter – the emergency water landing in the Hudson River executed by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffery Skiles in January 2009 – it could have easily turned out as a “rubbernecking movie,” where everyone’s just interested in watching car accidents or waiting for the worst to happen. However, Todd Komarnicki’s script (based on the biography “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) thankfully goes away from that and involves us deeper in the aftermath of US Airways Flight 1549, where not only is Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) is looking for someone to pin this accident on, and they’ve got him in their crosshairs.
Anyone can Google Captain Sullenberger or the timeline of events leading to the ditching of Flight 1549 which involved no fatalities; it’s quite another thing to see it brought to cinematic life. Of course, I’m speaking as someone not involved with the flight in any way – I can appreciate that it was a completely different thing altogether if you were on the plane. However, Sully is more than just a film adaptation of a Wikipedia entry. It’s being made to care about what was happening to Sullenberger and Skiles while everyone in the world was calling them heroes. It’s letting us know about the sleepless nights, the time away from loved ones, the interrogations from people who want to second-guess your work.
And that’s another thing I love about Sully. We’ve all had those moments in our life where we make a decision and are forced to live with it, even though the results of the decision may not have harmed anyone. It’s in the dark nights where we’re lying awake in a sweat and thinking that we may not have done the right thing, or if we’d done it another way, someone might have gotten hurt or worse. Anyone who’s been in a car accident knows – to a lesser extent, of course – what Sullenberger goes through when he dreams about making different turns and crashing into buildings.
The film commands attention, and rightfully so, as Sullenberger and Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are grilled relentlessly by NTSB investigators Ben Edwards (Jamey Sheridan) and Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley), the latter of whom seems to have some kind of grudge against the pilots. It’s never explained why he acts this way; because the narrative dramatics demand there be some kind of villain, it must be him. Even though no one was seriously injured or killed, politics and the culture of blame require the pilots to be the fall guys. It seems to speak to the part of our culture so interested in digging and digging for some fault or any reason to vilify even the most innocent of public figures.
Throughout Sullenberger’s stay in Manhattan as the investigation is completed, Hanks portrays him as a regular man who merely did his job and managed to keep everyone alive. This belief is his guiding principle as he traverses talk shows and media interviews with people so bent on calling him a hero, with one person negating him by claiming the story was “good news coming out of New York. That hasn’t happened in a while… especially involving an airplane.” The film is also a testament to the bravery of the crew, the passengers, and all of the emergency teams involved in rescuing 155 people from the icy waters of the Hudson River. Sullenberger may have been the pilot who got them down as safely as possible; others completed the mission by pulling ferryboats and helicopters away from their purposes and lending an immediate hand.
Eastwood makes some great choices in the sound and score departments, matching the visceral picture with an equally engaging aural experience. The score by Christian Jacob swells and jolts at all the appropriate moments, yet it’s not overly bombastic like those found in Michael Bay films. Jacob’s score complements the film well, never feeling like it’s competing for attention or standing out like a sore thumb. Also, Eastwood doesn’t waste a single minute of this film on long shots or lots of pensive takes; instead, he moves with a machine-like precision, guiding us from scene to scene and getting us where we need to go with grace, not haste.
Having happened only three years ago and twelve years after 9/11, the scare of a low-flying plane in Manhattan suddenly turned into a humanizing event the world over. We are shown the incident twice from different perspectives – the first to show the event as seen through the eyes of everyone on board, the second being a tightly-timed adherence to the cockpit voice recorder – yet it doesn’t feel excessive. The film’s short running time of 96 minutes makes the film feel like it was hewn to the bare minimum of truth and necessity, much like Sullenberger himself.