Sully (Clint Eastwood, 2016) 3½ out of 4 stars
As a procedural dissection of a near cataclysmic airplane disaster that somehow – miraculously! – resulted in zero casualties, Sully, the new film from Hollywood veteran Clint Eastwood (American Sniper), is a brilliantly gripping cinematic thriller. Even though we already know what happened, Eastwood somehow manages to recreate the incident of January 15, 2009, when a flock of geese flew into both engines of US Airways Flight 1549, out of LaGuardia, disabling all thrust power, in such a way that every new iteration of the accident – as we see it from different angles at different times in the movie – reveals deeper layers to the drama, each more cathartic than the last. It’s the best of mature studio filmmaking and a welcome antidote to the modern plague of superhero madness that overfills our multiplexes, made all the more poignant since the man at its center, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (known as Sully), actively rejects the label of hero. Unfortunately, a few other elements of the script – namely, the relationship between Sullenberger and his wife – are less well developed and briefly bog down the story in soggy sentimentality. Nevertheless, as imperfect as those aspects of it may be, Sully is still a riveting ride.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the movie is its revelation of what happened behind the scenes of the celebrations following Sullenberger’s derring-do. The real focus of the story is not, actually, the accident, but the multiple hearings that follow, when the NTSB conducts its investigation into the causes of the engine failure and the decisions and actions of the cockpit crew in the crucial 208 seconds from geese strike to Hudson landing. Not everyone feels as if Sullenberger did the right thing, despite the fact that he saved all 155 passengers on board the flight. This construct allows Eastwood, working off a mostly smart script by Todd Komarnicki (Perfect Stranger) – itself based on the book Highest Duty, co-written by Sullenberger – to revisit, over and over, his meticulously staged reenactment of the flight and its incredible splashdown in the river. It never gets old, and never ceases to amaze.
Tom Hanks (Bridge of Spies), born to personify integrity (though not someone with whom you might want to travel), is Sully, and brings to life both the man’s heroism (reluctant though it may be) and humility. Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole), as his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, is also strong, and we believe in their rapport and post-accident friendship. The rest of the cast rounds out the ensemble nicely, though Laura Linney (Hyde Park on Hudson) is wasted in the thankless role of Lorraine, Sully’s wife, here doomed to remind him of problems at home when he has enough on his plate in New York. As if one underwritten, nagging woman weren’t enough, the always watchable Anna Gunn (Skyler White from Breaking Bad) is also brought in to harass Sully for his ostensible incompetence at the various hearings. It’s not a good film for its actresses.
But it is otherwise a solid true-story action-drama that, at just over 90 minutes, never overstays its welcome. Briskly paced and wonderfully acted, it does justice to most of its characters and the valiant deeds it portrays. One of my favorite moments comes at the end, when the real-life characters – crew and passengers, alike – gather, over the credits, in a tearful reunion to celebrate the man who saved them all. Captain Sullenberger may not have sought the limelight, but he more than deserved it, and Sully is a fitting testament to his humble courage. As he tells Skiles after the final hearing is done, “We did our job.” Indeed, and so has Eastwood and company.