For his dramatization of “The Miracle on the Hudson”, director Clint Eastwood casts Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and it is a potent combination. The film, simply titled Sully, collects powerful performances around a singular event and explores the immediate aftermath of Sully’s decision to land a plane on the Hudson river. Remarkably, Sully isn’t a simple disaster movie or ballad of heroism, but instead a considered look at the weight of decision, the ascent of an “everyman” to high public esteem, and the importance of training and expertise. Though the film pushes a broad pseudo-villain on the audience and suffers from a poor performance in some spots, the overall structure of the narrative, weight of the themes, and power of the performances merge into a satisfying experience.
The essential plot of Sully is fairly straightforward, but there is more to the narrative than a simple plane crash. Though the crash is obviously central to the story, most of the drama is actually derived from reaction to it. Eastwood is able to down-play the actual crash through a fairly ingenious device: he shows the crash multiple times, and in multiple variations. Hence, the film opens post-crash with Sully having a nightmare where the crash is much worse. We get direct recollection of the crash as well, plus a number of simulations.
This repetition allows Eastwood to introduce the elements of doubt and fame into the story. Because although Sully saved everyone on board US Airways Flight 1549, the insurance company believes it may have been possible to return to an airport. Similarly, Sully has to deal with his rocketing fame, as he becomes a household name practically overnight. These plot points certainly could exist in a more linear story, but by diluting the experience of the crash itself with multiple “replays”, Eastwood helps draw our attention away from the act of heroism and towards the ramifications.
As a result, Sully becomes more focused on the characters than you might expect, and therefore requires strong performances. Fortunately, Eastwood gets exactly that, and not just from Tom Hanks. Hanks has a history of portraying real people, especially heroic ones, and his turn as Sully certainly harkens back to Apollo 13 and the more recent Captain Phillips. There is much more of a working-class feel to this portrayal – a sense of “Do Your Job”. There are some quietly powerful moments from Hanks, and they infuse the film with much of its pathos.
While Hanks is obviously the star of the film, smaller performances also shine. Sully’s co-pilot Jeff Skiles is played wonderfully by Aaron Eckhart in the kind of supporting role that he has always absolutely crushed. Members of the crash committee include Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn and Mike O’Malley, both of which are pitch-perfect. Even throwaway characters like a bartender played by Michael Rapaport give some nice flavor to the story, and everyone from the air traffic controller to the rescue personnel perform admirably. One noticeable question mark is the role of Sully’s wife Lorraine, played by Laura Linney. Generally, Linney is a fine actor, but there is something off about her performance here. It may be that she only ever interacts with Sully over the phone and that her scenes feel like an interruption, or it may just be an off performance, but it definitely stood out for the wrong reasons.
The other main failure of Sully is less pronounced but still irksome: the casting of the disaster investigation committee as the villain. With the way Eastwood chose to structure this story, he expects diminishing dramatic returns from the actual crash and rescue. Hence, he needs something else to generate tension. Casting the oversight committee as the bad guys seems like it could work, but it is a little too heavy-handed in its execution. It is not a complete failure, though, as it allows Sully to doubt his own actions and wonder if he needlessly endangered the passengers. However, it is worth pointing out that this same conflict could exist without casting the committee as boogeyman.
By contrast, other choices work well. Sully’s burgeoning fame and media attention help to humanize him, and further pot-shots at the media’s initial reaction to news of the disaster are well-placed (at least from my perspective). As a simple example, Eastwood takes the time to have members of the media prognosticate the danger to the crash victims with such phrases as “minutes to live” and the like. It’s blunt, to be sure, but deserved.
From a thematic perspective, Eastwood delivers the same profundity and clarity that we have come to expect from his best films. Sully is about the ascension of the expert everyman to the heights of the heroic, based simply on his ability to apply knowledge during a crisis. Subthemes flow outward from this major idea, and include previously mentioned concepts like the media response to events and the tendency of self-doubt to creep into the mind of even the most assured individual (especially with plenty of time for self reflection). Though not particularly challenging, the film is still emotionally rousing, and you have to appreciate that it offers such thematic power.
It is unlikely that this film will be remembered as a Top Five effort for either Hanks or Eastwood, but let’s not kid ourselves: that is more a statement to the absurd quality of these men’s respective outputs than a slight on Sully. The particular mix of powerful performances, thematic concerns, and an ingenious narrative structure add up to a rewarding cinematic experience.