While everyone remembers the headlines hailing Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger as the heroic pilot behind the Miracle on the Hudson, Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully, based on the book Highest Duty, written by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, takes a closer look at the man behind the miracle. Tom Hanks is stellar as always in the title role, while Eastwood’s pacing and attention to detail make the film considerably more dramatic and tense than you might imagine it to be—particularly during the scenes that take place during the aftermath of the accident. While it is unlikely to garner too much awards-season attention, Sully is a taut and engaging drama that is sure to please audiences all over.
While Sully deals with the January 15, 2009 plane crash—as a flock of geese fly into the engines of the plane shortly after takeoff, forcing an emergency landing—in which, miraculously, not a single person was killed, the film is ultimately a very intimate story about the man himself. While the world watched on in awe as the man saved over 150 lives during one of the most unlikely plane landings ever, Sully was living in personal anguish. Was there anything else he could have done? Did he have to land on the Hudson in the first place? Would this crash dampen his otherwise impeccable career? Meanwhile, a United Airlines task force is assembled to prove that Sully could have (and should have) returned the plane to LaGuardia or to nearby Teterboro Airport in New Jersey, thus saving the plane as well as all of the lives on board.
Much of the film examines the days and weeks following the crash, and how Sully leans on the testimony of co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and finds comfort in the voice of his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) as lead investigator Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) and his team attempt to discredit Sully’s version of what happened in the air. Conversely, everywhere Sully goes, he is greeted by people who treat him like a national hero—a bartender, a hotel concierge, his wife, even Katie Couric—which seems to make Sully more uncomfortable than the incessant grilling he receives from the United Airlines team. This is a movie in which we already know the ending (that Sully’s status as hero is completely untarnished), so focusing on his state of mind throughout the turbulent event and its aftermath makes this a fascinating story worth telling.
Tom Hanks is really the only actor you could imagine playing this now iconic man. Even though there are other characters throughout the film, the story hinges on Hanks and the believability of his performance, almost as much as a movie like Cast Away—a film in which Hanks is the only actor on screen for practically the entire movie. There are many flashbacks and dream sequences throughout, and Hanks’ performance is essential for these to be grounded and feel relevant to the story arc. Hanks must face a range of emotions in the film, many of them subtle and hard to quantify. He knows he did everything he could to save the 150 people on board his plane, but even though he saved each one of them, he still feels immense guilt and confusion for the whole ordeal. Much of this movie is told through extreme closeups on Hanks’ face, and his eyes are able to convey everything needed in order for the audience to feel emotionally invested.
Clint Eastwood does a nice job of pacing this film, considering that the plane crash almost feels like an afterthought compared to how Sully deals with its fallout. There are moments that feel a bit excessive and overly sentimental—several flashbacks of Sully early in his career, for example—but the movie, with a runtime of only 96 minutes, does not feel bogged down by them. In fact, there is a surprising amount of drama to be found in just about every corner of this film. There are scenes of Sully jogging through the streets of New York, surrounded by news bulletins declaring Sully a hero, that show how inundated the man is with his newfound and unwanted fame. There is a scene that takes place in a bar, in which the bartender and surrounding regulars dote over the celebrity in their midst—they even invented a drink after him (Grey Goose with a splash of water)—showing how Sully objects to being seen as a hero. And there are several phone calls that Sully has with his wife Lorraine, showing how much he loves and misses his family, and how badly he wishes he could be with them instead of answering questions from the press and from the United Airlines committee in New York. All of these scenes, along with the scenes in which Sully tells his version of what happened that day, and the scenes depicting the actual crash, make for what amounts to an incredibly watchable psychological drama and occasional action film.
Sully is not a groundbreaking achievement, but it is a fascinating film worth watching. Again, going in, the audience is (at least very likely) aware of the story and of the end result, but the way that Eastwood treats the larger-than-life occurrence as an intimate character study makes the movie feel inspired and connectable. Tom Hanks knocks it out of the park, and the supporting cast does a great job as well. See Sully in the theater if you get a chance, and stay through the end credits to hear the stories of some of the real-life survivors (including the pilot, himself).