As lean and laconic as its director, Clint Eastwood’s SULLY is a gripping but (mostly) unsentimental retelling of how Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed his stricken American Airlines plane in the Hudson River after suffering a bird strike on January 15, 2009. To the public, and the lives of the passengers he saved, he was a hero, but the film goes behind the headlines and the soufflé-light media appearances to reveal the official investigation that blamed Sully for the loss of the aircraft, and the evidence that shook the confidence of a pilot with 42 years of exemplary flying experience.
The film begins after the crash, or, as First Office Jeff Skiles (a prodigiously mustachioed Aaron Eckhart) archly points out the National Transportation Safety Board investigators, the water landing. Sully is walking through a nightmare, both when he sleeps fitfully while dreaming of his plane crashing into New York City, and while waking, as his inner anxieties manifest themselves with visions of the same thing projected onto bustling city streets in what may or may not be a call-out to 9/11. The shock of the crash is secondary, though, to the fervent accolades from strangers, the determination of the NTSB to prove that there was a better option than going into the water, and the stress of what will happen to his career and his family if the decision goes against him.
Could there be a better everyman that Tom Hanks to play an unwilling center of a media storm? Of course not. As Sully negotiates the dichotomy of fame and guilt, Hanks is never less than the modest, small-town boy who was just doing his job with an unswerving sense of right and wrong. He is an actor of great subtlety when the necessary, and he has never been better at using that gift than here. Sully is not a man to visibly ruffle, and so it’s the eyes with just a hint of sadness that belie the otherwise imperturbable demeanor as he watches coverage of his finest hour. A slight air of distraction that gives credence to an elevated pulse during the mandatory physical after rescue from the Hudson even as the voice remains calm, as it has throughout the split-second air maneuvers and evacuation as the water fills the plane. The slight tenseness in the throat as he calls his wife (Laura Linney) to tell her that he’s alright. Hanks humanizes with a vital emotional immediacy.
The story is almost a procedural in its attention to detail and unfussy direction that heightens the step-by-step
decision to go into the water, and the rescue from those icy waters that were as deadly as the unorthodox landing by letting the life-and-death drama speak for itself. By the time we are airborne on that ill-fated flight. We have been prepared with the details of what happened, going from the media coverage, to the reaction of the air-traffic controller trying to find Sully a safe place to land only to lose contact with him as the plane goes below the radar threshold. It’s only later, though, when the hearing is in progress, that we see that part of the story from inside the cockpit, from the bird-strike through the evacuation that found Sully the last to leave, making sure the plane was empty of passengers, and taking both his flight log and his coat with him when he left. It’s the perfect crescendo marred only by a discordant injection of clichéd sentiment. The father and son who are late for the flight, the mother and daughter pondering souvenirs before boarding. There is also a heavy-handedness to the simmering vitriol of the investigators. Sully may say to Skiles that the investigation is nothing personal, but the contrary is palpable.
SULLY hinges on the superiority of experience over theory, a soothing message in a mechanized world that relegates the human factor to a slot just this side of superfluous, but it’s also a message that needed the kind of subtlety that Hanks delivers in his performance. Without him at the center, this would have been a far lesser film.