Americans love a good hero, and so the treatment Captain Chesley B Sullenburger — Sully to pretty much the entire world after he landed the Airbus A320 he was flying in New York’s Hudson River after it lost both its engines to bird strikes — received after his unorthodox manoeuvre was quite surprising.
Sully tells the story more of the aftermath of what soon became known, in typically American hagiographic fashion, as “The Miracle On The Hudson,” during which Sullenburger’s aeronautical decision-making was dragged through the mud. He was, of course, undeniably a hero, and this is probably the reason why director Clint Eastwood cast Tom Hanks in the title role — as soon as we see Hanks’ Sullenburger, all white hair and starched white shirt, strapped into the left seat of the cockpit, we know that everything’s going to work out just fine, from the successful response to a catastrophic loss of thrust at three thousand feet to the grilling the NTSB enquiry subjected Sullenburger to.
The flight itself lasted barely three minutes from takeoff at La Guardia airport to splash-down in the Hudson River — not, in itself, enough to make a feature-length film out of. What Eastwood has done, instead, is to focus on the enquiry that followed, and the attempts made to drag Sullenburger’s name through the mud. And he’s made a very powerful film in the process. It’s only 95 minutes long, and it tells its story briskly and tightly, a story of a man who knows that what he did was the right thing, but who is constantly being challenged and questioned by people who weren’t there. Hanks offers a tightly-wound portrayal of Sullenburger as a decent man who, having saved 154 lives, then has to save his own reputation.
The film does an excellent job of presenting a highly technical story in a very clear way. The entire flight is re-enacted, with cockpit dialogue taken almost verbatim from the NTSB report into the incident; essential details are left in word for word, while less relevant chatter like frequency-change instructions are left out to keep the dialogue clean. The result is a very effective, powerfully-played scene which could so easily have been milked for plenty of melodrama but which managed to present the events in a terrifyingly dispassionate manner.
And that, in the end, is what makes Sully as satisfying a film as it is. Americans do have a tendency to hero-worship, and Sully manages to avoid creeping toward glorifying its hero. Instead it presents Sullenburger as surrounded by, but not entirely wanting, the hoopla that inevitably followed his actions, Hanks doing his finest modern-day Jimmy Stewart self-effacingness for most of the film. He’s supported well by Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, the first officer who was flying the plane when it flew through a flock of Canada geese; Skiles is often forgotten in the story of flight 1549, and Eckhart plays Skiles as always half a step behind Sullenberger, very slightly, but not resentfully, in Sullenburger’s shadow. Mike O’Malley does an excellent job as Charles Porter, the NTSB investigator who seems to have some kind of hidden agenda against Sullenburger and who probes the pilot with a little less respect than would seem entirely appropriate. Less impressive is Laura Linney as Lorraine Sullenburger; her character gets to be little more than the little lady left at home as Sullenburger stays in New York for his interrogations, and while Linney does what she can with what she’s given to work with, that really isn’t very much. There is a hint, early in one questioning, that there might be some tension within the Sullenburger marriage, but this is quickly jettisoned and, while it might, had it been fleshed out, have given Linney a little more to play with, it’s never revisited, and so Linney gets little more to do than try to offer her husband moral support over the phone.
Clint Eastwood can, at this stage in his career, pretty much make the films he wants to make, the way he wants to. Let’s hope he makes more like this one.