Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart & Laura Linney
Running time: 1hr 36mins
There will, like most years, be a significant portion of the movies nominated at the Academy Awards in February, and while Sully may not feature prominently, it represents Clint Eastwood’s best film since 2008’s Gran Torino.
Eastwood, masterfully using Tom Hanks’ stoic portrayal of the titular hero Captain Chesley Sullenberger, recalls an event when the real winner was the endurance of human spirit – that uncanny ability to make razor-sharp decisions with virtually no time and unimaginable pressure. The real triumph here – in what is surprisingly Eastwood and Hanks’ collaboration – is how the film captures the troubling journey of the central character, one that is existential, haunted and stark.
Sully begins with a nightmarish vision, a deliberately and effective device deployed by Eastwood throughout the narrative. We hear Sully trying to land US Airways Flight 1549 seconds after losing both engines in a particularly intense birdstrike. The plane begins to lose altitude and, suddenly, the plane dives straight into a skyscraper, the building engulfing in flames in a devastating explosive visual among Manhattan’s darkened cityscape. It is here – decisively in the opening sequence – that Eastwood depicts the immense stakes at play when Sully opted to execute an emergency water landing on top the icy Hudson River, as opposed to attempting a return to LaGuardia airport.
From this point, we are struck by Hanks’ laconic, deeply introspective portrait of the character. One of the standout lines from the film’s official trailer was Sully uttering the words “I don’t feel like a hero” during an interview. Indeed, it is something that courses through the film relentlessly. Sully is splashed across every newspaper and appearing on every major talk show – including a nice piece of editing that allowed Hanks to appear on the The Late Show with David Letterman – yet the reports are not unanimous in their praise.
Barely having changed into warm, dry clothes, Sully and his first officer, Jeff Skiles (a delightful Aaron Eckhart), are summoned before a federal committee investigating the incident. A major part of the film, the thought of how close Sully came to being forced into an immediate retirement and loss of pension never strays from the mind while watching. Here was a man of immense resolve, a soul who skilfully utilised his 42 years of experience in the air to make a near-impossible decision and gamble with the lives of 155 people. Yet, his reputation was nearly shattered by bureaucratic suits who hide behind their computer simulations and statistics.
The investigators, if nothing more, serve to instil in Sully a deepened sense of doubt. His performances under intense questioning throughout the film is unshakeable, but in his mind he is wrestling with the harrowing thought of what might have happened had he followed approved airline procedure. His relationship on screen with his wife, Lorrie (Laura Linney), is confined to a series of phone calls. As you might expect, these exchanges offer a deeper dive into Sully’s psyche. “What if I did blow this?” he asks her, offering a glimpse into the tormented mind he’s bearing despite pulling off one of the most extraordinary feats in aviation history.
Eastwood’s pacing and structure is deliberate yet gripping. The first third of the film is comprised of Sully’s invariably disturbing imaginings and courtroom-esque scenes of questioning, building up to the account of the flight itself. The sequence – shot in IMAX – is a masterclass from Eastwood. The humming of the engine, to the thudding sound of the Canada geese diving headfirst into the engines and the repeated cries of “brace! Brace!” combine for a thrilling sensory experience. However, amid the screams of the passengers and the scrapes of the failing engines, Sully remains at the centre, refusing to be fazed by the prospect of plunging to a horrifying death. His hand remains steady on the joystick and he informs air traffic control of his intention to land the plane of the Hudson River, attracting an anxious look from Skiles on his right. Despite knowing the outcome, the following two minutes are hair-raising and intense, ending with Sully emerging from the water, greeted by adoring passengers now safely on land and draped in blankets.
There is no tragedy in Sully. It is a portrait of a true American hero, but one that does not require a study on the consequence of violence or the burden of heroism. There are doubts among journalists and federal investigators as to Sully’s valiance, but deep down he never fully disengages himself from knowing he did what was right. Admittedly, too, there is great satisfaction in seeing the committee of investigators shrivel and squirm at the eventual outcome of the climactic scene’s hearing. Their depth of research and adherence to procedure is rendered irrelevant by Sully’s reminder of the ‘human factor,’ that pressure-packed window of time up in the air between realising both engines were failing and making the turn towards the Hudson.
Some may offer that Sully has a distinctive workmanlike quality to it. It does, similarly to Bridge of Spies, Hanks’ latest feature with Steven Spielberg. However, unlike that Cold War-era drama, Sully zooms by in a brisk 96 minutes, with barely a scene or line of dialogue wasted. It is not operatic nor is it emotionally devastating, and may lack the sheer blistering gravitas of some of the current Oscar frontrunners, but Sully stands tall as one of the finest films of the year.
4 out of 5 Nerds