"Dual engine loss at 2800 feet followed by water landing with 155 souls on board. No one has ever trained for an incident like that."
Credit where credit’s due, to be directing a potential Oscar contender at 86 years old is an impressive feat in itself, and not just any old film but one that is tasked with depicting a culturally defining event in recent American history. You have to hand it to Clint Eastwood, he’s had a long and celebrated career. In many ways that could explain how hesitant many critics are hesitant to tarnish his recent films as no one wants the last thing they write about Eastwood to be a negative review, that and the fact that his movies are still pretty decent.
On January 15, 2009, Captain Chelsea ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after both engines of US Airline Flight 1549 became immobilised. In the process he saves 155 lives but in the aftermath he must navigate a media ready to hail him as a hero and a sceptical National Transportation and Safety Board who argue that Sully may have acted rashly.
When dealing with an incident like the Miracle on the Hudson it must be difficult for a filmmaker to not simply revert to hero worship mode. In some ways ‘Sully’ drifts dangerously close into that territory and instead of a complex or intriguing portrayal of a national hero we instead see him portrayed as your resident good guy and nothing more. But then again considering the reality of this situation it might be difficult to create a less than perfect portrayal of the character. After all, the real life Sully not only managed to pull off a feat of incredible heroism but was so humble about it that you’d be forgiven for thinking he was being praised for making a skilled parking manoeuvre at his local supermarket.
That being said, what ‘Sully’ lacks in the complexion of its protagonist it makes up for by supplying a good chunk of narrative ground to cover without deviating from the man at its centre. It is well and truly a film about one man’s act of heroism and the aftermath of it. It moves from scene to scene in a superb manner. The films structure and relatively short runtime of 96 minutes means there is little padding (as is so often to fatal flaw of cinematically thin true stories) and the end result is an efficient and excellently focussed biopic.
The fact that the film feels so fixated on a singular subject is one of the most admirable aspects of it. Rather than blow the story out of proportion, recount a clichéd version of Sully’s life story or beat us over the head with why the Miracle on the Hudson was embraced as such a cultural event, being that the prevention of an airline disaster over New York City was an overdue catharsis for the World Trade Centre attacks of 2001 (and if you think that sounds ludicrous then let me remind you that this film was released on Friday September 9, a date that just happened to coincide with the weekend of September 11. What a coincidence). Instead the end result is an uncluttered and more personal story.
Another advantage of ‘Sully’ being tightly constructed to centre on its protagonist is that it allows us to spend more time with Tom Hanks, whom it should go without saying is excellent in the role. His usual acting style manages to humanise the hero at the heart of the film but also conveys a sense of professionalism and assurance that never leaves us in doubt of his own abilities. Aaron Eckhart is able to hold his own alongside Hanks as Sully’s co-pilot and the two share a sense of camaraderie to make their working relationship feel believable.
Due to its use of flashbacks, simulations and nightmares ‘Sully’ replays the same emergency landing from several different angles and perspectives that allow the viewer to become as intimately familiar with the incident as Sully is. Each replay of the landing is competently shot and excellently crafted, putting the audience in a state of tension that makes them appreciate just how skilled a landing it was and never resorts to cheap gimmicks like manipulative music or editing trickery. In other words it’s just good old fashioned filmmaking.
There is a problem however, when the film has to deal with the aftermath of the crash. It demotes the NTSB to villainous caricatures who have the audacity to question an all American hero. It’s understandable that the narrative would want to create some conflict and the film itself tries to morph into a parable of instinct vs technology, which makes sense given that the movie reinforces the notion that Sully trusted his instinctive judgement and skill. That’s all very admirable, but it risks ringing false when the film also tries to paint Sully’s actions not as a feat of heroism but simply as a man doing his job. A fine sentiment, but when you consider that the NTSB investigators are, at the end of the day, also just men doing their jobs yet being portrayed as evil meddlers it comes across as frustratingly hypocritical.
A competently made and tightly wound biopic that, despite its flaws, stands as another fine entry to Eastwood’s filmography.