Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Todd Komarnicki based on the book “Highest Duty” by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, and Mike O’Malley
Runtime: 96 minutes
Clint Eastwood has had a rough few years. After a surprise victory at the 2005 Oscars for his 2004 film Million Dollar Baby, taking home his third and fourth Oscars (for Best Director and Best Picture), he surprised everyone by putting out two excellent films in 2006, the bookend films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the latter in Japanese, then repeating in 2008 with the great yet underseen Changeling and the surprise hit of Grand Torino. From there, his work got spotty. 2009 saw the release of the little seen Invictus with Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman (with both of them walking away with Oscar nominations, Freeman for the role he was born to play: Nelson Mandela. It’s just a shame no one saw it), followed in 2010 with another Damon collaboration Hereafter, which also went largely unseen. J. Edgar flopped in 2011, and those that did see it reviled it and he pulled a twofer again in 2014 with another unseen film, Jersey Boys, and the over-praised American Sniper which snagged six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and winning for Sound Editing. Now here is Sully, Eastwood’s best film since Changeling and the third in what could be called his series on American heroes after J. Edgar and American Sniper (heroes as far as Eastwood is concerned, not necessarily everyone else).
Sully tells the story of Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), the pilot who successfully landed a commercial airliner in the Hudson River after both engines were disabled by a bird strike on January 15, 2009 with no casualties among the 155 passengers and crew aboard. The water landing (not a crash) is central to the story, as we see bits and pieces of it over the brief 96-minute film. The drama that unfolds is around the investigation of the water landing by the airline’s insurance company. Their representatives, Elisabeth Davis (Anna Gunn, best known from her role as Skyler White on Breaking Bad) and Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley), are intent on proving that the plane was able to land at both of the airports available and it was pilot error that forced the water landing (and therefore they would not have to pay for the damages to the plane or for the medical bills of those injured). Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have to get them to see that the decision was the right one, despite what their computer simulations and incomplete reports show them.
Writer Todd Komarnicki structures the film around Sully and his constant questioning if he did the right thing by landing the plane on the Hudson. He’s sure he was right, but can’t shake the image of it going wrong. Komarnicki paints Sully as it seemed in interviews with the real man wants to be seen: as just a man who was doing his job. Komarnicki weaves in flashbacks to the famous 208 second landing throughout the screenplay, using it to drive the plot but leaving the main focus and pull of the script on Sully and his relationship to his co-pilot Jeff and his wife Loraine (Laura Linney, free to take film roles now that she is no longer introducing Downton Abbey). Komarnicki shows the oppressive nature of the press by both including sequences with Sully being mobbed and the media circus that has taken up residence in his front lawn, beleaguering Loraine. He also goes the extra step in making each of the characters real, not making anyone a throw-away character. You can sympathize with the insurance investigators who are trying to get to the truth of the matter as much as you can with Sully and Jeff as they believe what happened was the only way the situation could have played out without killing everyone onboard. He doesn’t create tension, just a compelling story arc that drives the film and lets us in on the things that happened after the landing and how Sully could have gone from hero to villain if the report had legitimately found him in the wrong.
Taking that well rendered script and making it compelling visually fell to Clint Eastwood, who has become one of our finest living filmmakers, despite his stumbles. He uses the flashbacks and fantasy scenes to underpin Sully’s trepidations about his decision, which is quite a break from his usually straightforward storytelling. What is not atypical for Eastwood is his letting his actors be the focus. He’s never been particularly interested in showy direction, though when the occasion calls for it, he executes it well. What sets this film apart from his more recent endeavors is the economy in his storytelling. Someone after the screening I attended commented that 96 minutes feels more like a trailer to an Eastwood film, not the whole movie and that is an accurate statement. Here he keeps everything tight and moving quickly, never laboring on any points. Some may say the frequent cuts to the landing may get redundant, but those are necessary to put us in Sully’s head as he constantly goes over the events that brought him to this moment. Eastwood doesn’t waste any time and tells the story well.
The centerpiece of the film is Hanks, though. He delivers one of his finest performances as Sully, disappearing into the role as he has not done in quite a while. More often than not, Hanks is like a modern day Jimmy Stewart, able to embody just about anyone yet still be himself, but on occasion, as in Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan, he is someone else entirely. He leaves a lot of himself behind when he’s Sully, capturing the inner turmoil of the man while also not backing down from what he knew was the right decision. He makes Sully a reluctant hero, a man who is just good at his job and knew what to do in a very brief timeframe.
Looking at a trailer for Sully, you may think it’s Robert Zemeckis’ Flight without Denzel Washington and cocaine, but that’s not what this is at all. The central drama of the hearings is meant to illustrate not only that what Sully did was amazing, but that human elements are so often overlooked when determining blame or awarding praise. Hank’s performance is top notch, Eastwood’s direction is more assured than it has been in years and the script is tight and evocative. Everything comes together to create a film that is thrilling, emotional, funny and above all entertaining and that makes Sully one of the best films of the year so far.