In 2009, America got a rare hero in the form of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed a commercial plane with two blown engines on the Hudson River without losing a single passenger. Clint Eastwood, as he did with “American Sniper,” takes a closer look at that heroism in “Sully,” which follows the immediate and little- known aftermath of the event, chronicling Sully’s (Tom Hanks) fame amid an investigation by the National Transportation Security Board into his decision-making.
Hanks is the film’s linchpin. Nobody does “everyday hero” like Hanks. His moments of uncertainty and brooding that project reluctant heroism are not only expertly delivered on screen, but critical to the drama and lifeblood of the film.
That’s because “Sully” is really a 90-minute exercise in how to make a feature film out of a story that doesn’t really have enough material for a feature film. Somehow, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki turn the plot of an NTSB investigation into the most riveting product one could possibly create from an NTSB investigation.
The compliment here is not meant to be so back-handed. No, “Sully” doesn’t manage to completely disguise how little it has to work with and some of the techniques that it uses to mold that story into a serviceable drama, but Eastwood and Hanks get more mileage out of all that than they seemingly should. The truth is that it works.
In a nutshell, while Americans were enchanted by “The Miracle on the Hudson,” Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were worried about losing their wings if an investigation revealed that they could have safely returned and landed the plane at LaGuardia. So, amid his press appearances on Letterman and with Katie Couric, Sully is doubting himself and wondering if he needlessly put all 155 passengers’ lives at risk.
Sully’s inner quarrel and the unfolding investigation are the only sources of conflict in the film, and that’s why Hanks covering that first half as well as he does makes the film. He lends such credence to the notion that Sully would have any self-doubt that it weighs on the audience too. As for the other half, Komarnicki paints the NTSB officials, which includes actors Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn among others, as out to get Sully, when the likelihood was that they were just doing their jobs, albeit coldly, perhaps.
When the climax of your movie is a room full of suits watching flight simulation videos recreating the conditions of the incident multiple times, you’ve put its fate in the hands of how well the rest of the film was executed. That’s where the sure eye of Eastwood makes a difference. It becomes more about the details, and he captures the right ones. “Sully” doesn’t get that emotionally evocative, but it hits enough of those notes with Eastwood’s guidance.
What it comes down to is that “Sully” landed in the right hands with Hanks, Eastwood and even Komarnicki for weaving a strong story where arguably there isn’t one. “Sully” isn’t a surefire awards contender, but it’s the kind of film that can be if there aren’t other great options. Either way, it’s a really solid watch.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Todd Komarnicki (screenplay), Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow (book)
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney