Eastwood’s Sully Sheds New Light on Historic Event


Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, dramatizes the 2009 “miracle on the Hudson,” where Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully performed a water landing of a commercial airliner without a single casualty.

Christian Bolles, Editor-in-Chief

There are few industry veterans more seasoned than Clint Eastwood. The legendary actor and director has delivered many winning examples of both trades, taking part in over 50 films since his career took off in 1959 with his appearance on the television show Rawhide. Known in equal parts for grit and artistry, Eastwood’s legacy will endure as myth in the world of filmmaking. Though his last film, American Sniper, garnered mixed reactions from critics and general audiences, his most recent effort, Sully, puts any notions of creative atrophy to rest.

Given its premise, the existence of a film like Sully was predictable. The box office demands that inspiring stories be commodified and repackaged, and Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s daring attempt to land a commercial jet on the Hudson River — better known as the “miracle on the Hudson” — is no exception. Subject to fierce media coverage, the near-catastrophe of January 2009 seems tailor-made for a dramatic reenactment starring an Oscar-winning actor.

As with every cinematic portrayal of a popular story, Sully faced the challenge of shattering expectations and delivering an original experience. Without a director as experienced as Eastwood and a star as beloved as Tom Hanks, that predicament may have broken the film. However, with the help of a strong supporting cast and a killer narrative structure, Sully is an understated triumph of biographical filmmaking.

Based on Sullenberger’s autobiography Highest Duty, Sully follows the famed pilot in the wake of his water landing. A brilliant opening sequence highlights the film’s goal to subvert its rote subject matter, set within a non-linear framework of flashbacks, dream sequences and real-time conflict. That conflict is orchestrated to hold audience engagement throughout — well aware that the landing itself wouldn’t be enough to carry more than half an hour of dramatic tension, the film focuses on the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of Sullenberger’s methods during the incident. By engaging with the question of whether the Captain should have ever attempted to land on the Hudson, endangering the lives of 155 passengers, Sully packs a surprising amount of heft. The twists and turns of these government reviews, unlike their subject, are little-known enough to provide a compelling central conflict.

Hanks’ performance is what brings Sullenberger’s internal struggle to the forefront. The complicated pain in his eyes at the most trying moments renders this story a personal one. Hanks plays Sullenberger as a soft-spoken, humble man whose life has been devoted to his identity as a pilot. Hanks’ spot-on delivery skillfully clarifies the irony of a lifetime of experience being eclipsed by just over 200 seconds of quick thinking, not in his spoken lines — which, due to a sparse script, are few and far between — but in his weathered mannerisms, which embody the character’s weariness with the flinching anxiety of an everyman thrown beneath a white-hot spotlight. In fact, some of the film’s most poignant moments come during Sullenberger’s late-night broodings, where all the weight of the day collapses from his shoulders and he is inundated with flashbacks.

Credit for the feat should not, of course, be taken from Sullenberger’s co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, whose calm demeanor under pressure was integral to the landing’s success. With charismatic aplomb, Aaron Eckhart portrays Skiles, who acts as the talkative counterpart to his captain, while remaining deferential to Sullenberger’s expertise both in and out of the cockpit. The film places the relationship between the two center-stage, as the support Skiles provides gives Sullenberger the strength to face the investigation despite mounting evidence against his judgment.

In a way, Sully sustains its running time by telling two stories at once — that of the water landing itself, as well as of the investigations. The former is split into fragments and scattered throughout the film, sometimes looking at the same moment from different perspectives. This all serves not only to reinforce Sullenberger’s traumatic recollection of the incident but also to call attention to the multiplicity of the rescue effort launched to retrieve him and his passengers. In the throes of a harsh Manhattan winter, the Hudson turns to an icy death-trap, posing an even greater threat than the plane’s now-drowned engines. When Sullenberger sighs out the final count of lives rescued, “155,” his relief is the direct result of the professionalism and compassion displayed by an array of what the film’s epilogue calls “Manhattan’s best,” all of whom are granted affectionate screen-time. These scenes consist of universally excellent performances, even for characters with only one or two lines. Sully’s proficiency in fleshing out the crisis is one of its strongest qualities, quite a feat given that the entire sequence occurs in chopped-up flashbacks.

The chopping itself, though, could have used more work. Eastwood is notorious for pushing production deadlines, giving his editing and special-effect teams scant windows of time to do their job. This neglect is evident in Sully. The film’s many jarring cuts between scenes — both visual and auditory — make for occasionally awkward viewing, while uninspired, unrealistic CGI robs external shots of the plane of potential immediacy. The odd shot or sequence succeeds in being memorable, making good use of mist and pulling off some legitimately shocking dream sequences. But in most scenes, anything from the tops of characters’ heads lingering out of frame to a sore lack of creativity in framing potentially arresting shots keeps Sully’s visuals from matching the layers of production beneath.

For all the media plugging of Sullenberger’s feat as an inspiring example of human achievement, Sully is admirably low on moments of victory. In fact, even when the water landing is finally shown to its completion, there’s almost no musical accompaniment whatsoever, refusing to accept the landing itself as a triumph. In this moment and others, the film relies on the transition from fear to gratitude on the passengers’ faces as they’re lifted to safety and wrapped in blankets to protect them from the cold. Hanks’ humble compassion makes Sullenberger’s insistence to search the flooding plane one last time for survivors seem like the sensible thing to do rather than the topper on an act of great heroism.

Sully mirrors its protagonist’s pervasive sensibility. The film threads a needle in a haystack of stale sensationalist biopics by making its voice that of Sullenberger’s. It’s an inherently understated approach, but one that never fails to make perfect sense, leaving behind satisfaction and ultimately hope once the epilogue kicks in. Though some of the movie’s finer artistic details keep Sully from masterpiece status, its sure sense of self, humble performances and well-tuned structure constitute a short, steady movie-going experience. Among rivers of by-the-numbers biopics, the experience in the cockpit guides Sully to a smooth landing.