Review: “Sully” (2016)

“Sully” is a film about how two kinds of people respond to immense pressure and impending doom. The heroes—a copilot, stewardesses, the coast guard, and of course, an elderly captain—all respond with calm, clear headed thinking, decisiveness, and courage. The villains, by contrast, respond with paranoia and panic. We don’t normally think of these competing characteristic as what “heroes” do as opposed to “villains”; but perhaps Clint Eastwood’s accomplishment here is to show us just how much can depend on how average, everyday people choose to react. Sometimes, it’s even the difference between heroism and manslaughter.

You know the story. In the stinging frost of a January day in 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his U.S. Air commercial jet on the Hudson river. All 155 passengers survived, the day was called “the miracle on the Hudson,” and Sully was deemed a hero of impossible skill and supernatural intuition. In the doldrums of the economic meltdown, Sully’s story was more than a miracle; it was a cultural moment, a reminder (especially in New York) that airplanes don’t always explode when they fall, and that hope could still be rewarded.

In “Sully,” the only one to miss this memo is Sully himself. The film opens with Sully’s plane crashing into the Manhattan skyline and erupting in a fireball that evokes memories of 15 years ago. This is, of course, a dream; we learn quickly that Sully’s nightmare comes from his sense of self-doubt and anxiety over his action on that day. Though he saved lives, the National Transportation Safety Board believes he could have landed at a nearby airport instead of in the river (or as one character later clarifies, “on” the river). Thus, an insurance company and an airline now have a financial stake in whether Sully unnecessarily endangered the passengers he somehow rescued.

It defies logic that a pilot who saved lives on an airliner without either engine could be forced to retire as a result. Throughout “Sully” I kept thinking how easily Eastwood could have made this film into an infuriating jeremiad against bureaucrats and insurance corporations. Wisely, he did not, but still.

The film’s drama centers on the investigation that the NTSB carries out, and whether they will determine that Sully was indeed at fault. For his part, Sully resents his new celebrity, and hallucinates reporters who decry him and more exploding planes. It’s obvious that this is an honorable man of duty. His copilot (Aaron Eckhart) showers praise on him, his wife (Laura Linney) believes in him, but Sully cannot rest if he doesn’t know for sure that he did the right thing. The election cycle of 2016 is desperately short of people like this, and we need to be reminded often that they’re out there.

“Sully” has an undeniably authentic feel. The crash sequence isn’t as technically masterful as, say, the one Robert Zemeckis achieved in Flight, but it is staged and photographed well. One thing Eastwood captures is the crucial knowledge and decisiveness of the flight crew during the chaos of the un-boarding. There’s no doubt in my mind that a lesser prepared team would have lost some lives during the frigid wait for rescue. These weren’t
marines or professional disaster handlers. They were flight attendants and copilots and stewardesses, with the same fear for themselves that everyone onboard had. Yet they preserved life.

Hanks is a good choice as Sullenberger. The role demands little of him, but that’s OK, because we are not meant to marvel at how great a human being Sullenberger is but at how ordinary. Laura Linney gives the film’s best performance as Sullenberger’s wife; the two never appear in the same shot, but their affection is evident.

Sully is a flawed movie. The script seems unsure if it wants to delve into Sullenberger’s past and psychology. There are a couple flashback sequences that show his love of flying and his remarkable instincts, but these scenes feel like they would be better in a different cut of the movie. There’s also a tactical mistake in editing that gives us what is essentially the exact same sequence twice. Given the scene’s relative lack of mystery, this is a test of patience rather than a tension builder.

Quibbles aside, “Sully” is a worthy documentation of a day that will be long remembered, if not by American culture, then certainly by 155 living, thankful passengers. The film reminded me of the greatness people are capable of when they refuse to panic, and simply do their job. We need more of that, especially now.

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