Movie Review: Sully

The 'Miracle on the Hudson' comes to the big screen courtesy of Clint Eastwood

Sully (Sully: Zázrak na řece Hudson)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
With Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Holt McCallany, Jerry Ferrara 

The relatively safe landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009 made worldwide news. Successful water landings are a rare occurrence. The plane's quiet captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, was hailed as a hero. The event become known as the Miracle on the Hudson.

Director Clint Eastwood takes the true story as the source for his latest film, Sully. The story, though, poses some dramatic problems. The flight was only off the runway for three minutes before geese hit both engines. The water landing took another three minutes, and most people already know the outcome. Somehow this needs to be stretched to 96 tension-filled minutes.

The film surprisingly takes the form of a pseudo-courtroom drama, with Sully put on the defense by the National Transportation Safety Board, which in real life is quick to blame pilot error for accidents. The NTSB claims that the plane engines weren't as badly damaged as the captain claims, and that it would have been easier and safer to land at either La Guardia or Teterboro airports. And they have computer simulations based on the flight data recorders to back them up. Sully, the NTSB claims, is not a hero but someone who panicked and needlessly endangered 155 passengers and crew. They probe into whether the pilot is having problems at home that might make him suicidal.

Sides are pitched early on, with Sully (played by Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) calling it a forced water landing and the NTSB using the term “crash.”

The script by Todd Komarnicki, based on Sullenberger's book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, puts Sully in almost every scene. Hanks gives the character a quiet power, making polite small talk with people before the accident and keeping his cool throughout the landing and even at the NTSB inquiry, where he can see he is being demonized.

Hanks, sporting white hair and a mustache, plays a rather reluctant hero who is not very comfortable with the media circus surrounding him. He isn't really pleased to find that a bar near his hotel has named a drink after him, for example. The ever unlikeable Michael Rapaport has a small scene as an annoyingly sycophantic bartender. He does say something that helps to move the plot in Sully's favor, however. It is a bit of screen irony that perhaps the least likeable person in this upbeat film, aside from the NTSB members, comes to Sully's rescue.

Eckhart, as the co-pilot, has a hard job of not upstaging Hanks by being too emotive and creating a generic buddy film with a comedian and a straight man. Eckhart does make a few jokes, but not so many that they become a distraction. Sully's wife (Laura Linney) is mostly seen on the phone, which also strategically avoids a big emotional scene.

The film stresses the professionalism of everyone involved, with ferry boat captains and emergency response teams all taking the water landing in stride and following procedures, and nobody panicking. Even the passengers for the most part take it in stride. With the icy waters in January, if the ferry boats hadn't responded in time the passengers would have died from exposure to the icy water, despite surviving the water landing.

The one concession director Eastwood, who does not appear in the film, makes to pandering a bit to the audience, is showing some dream and fantasy sequences of how the flight might have ended differently. It does liven up things a bit, but comes off as a cheap ploy to insert some unnecessary special effects.

The film does succeed, though, despite that most people already know the story. The recreation of the landing will have viewers on the edge of their seats, even though the outcome is not a surprise.

September kicks off the awards season, when the action offerings of the summer are replaced on screens by more serious films that hope to vie for Golden Globes, Oscars and other awards. Tom Hanks certainly stands out as worthy of consideration. It is his best work in a long time. Most people saw the real pilot Sully at some point in the media, and have an idea of who he is. Hanks has to preserve that idea, while at the same time being the reliable Tom Hanks everyone counts on.

The film also should be remembered in technical categories, as the re-creation of the water landing is rather impressive. Eastwood's direction is very low key, which is what the story required. It may be too low key for some. Likewise, Eckhart's excellent performance may fly under the radar of the award nominations, which is a shame. Sully stresses that landing the plane was a team effort and not a one-man show. It is the same for the film.

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