It’s in the faces of the New Yorkers who look out the window and see an airliner descending over the cityscape. It’s in the voice of the air traffic controller talking to the pilot. Most of all, it’s in the anguish of the passengers on board US Airways flight 1549 as they realise something has gone terribly wrong. It’s the nightmare of 9/11. Clint Eastwood’s Sully is a not a tale of terrorism, but for a few seconds it must have seemed to some of those involved that it might have been. And the spectre of 9/11 gives this story, of 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson” an emotional depth that you may not see coming. How could the image of a passenger plane in trouble over New York City not evoke such a response?
In all other respects, this is a well written, crafted and acted film. And it succeeds in overcoming an obvious storytelling challenge: we all already know the ending and we know it’s a good ending. The man responsible has been lauded around the world as a hero of our time. Again, it all happened in 2009, so few of us are likely to have forgotten it. The Airbus of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is crippled by a birdstrike moments after take-off, whereby Sully makes the decision to execute a forced landing into New York’s Hudson River. In so doing he saved all 155 lives on board.
So how to build tension and drama into a story where there will be no surprises? Sully’s opening scene is shocking, but after that the film builds quite deliberately and slowly. This turns out to be a good move, as it lays out the key tension in the story: yes Sully saved lives, but did he put everyone at unnecessarily high risk by executing a forced landing on the water, when there was a safer option? The National Transportation Board contend that Sully had other options. It’s a conflict most of us probably did not appreciate at the time. In public Sully was hailed in the media, but behind the scenes he stood accused of executing poor judgment.
Eastwood moves around the timeline in telling the story. Given the actual incident unfolded in 208 seconds, it’s a clever way of making the most of the action. As usual, his direction is unfussed and to the point. At times he lets the action play out with no soundtrack, adding to the docudrama feel of the film. His cast deliver understated and extremely real performances. Tom Hanks’ Sully is a man who under extreme stress retains a degree of measure and calm his many years of experience afford him. He is not demonstrable, but contained. In Hanks’ hands though, small movements belie a great deal. The moment when Sully finally hears about the numbers of those who survived is a highlight of the film. Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles also gives us a performance so real it doesn’t seem like acting. The cabin crew are similarly authentic. Interestingly Eastwood didn’t use actors at all for the roles of the first responders on the water. They are the actual workers involved in the film.
Others have tackled this type of film-making challenge and succeeded, none better than director Paul Greengrass in his 2006 film United 93, telling the 9/11 story principally through the passengers and crew of the one flight which failed to hit its target. Again in that film we knew the ending beforehand, but it remains an utterly gripping drama. In 2016, 86 year old Clint Eastwood has delivered another.