by Philip Price
“Sully” is a slim 95-minutes. It swoops in with a harrowing opening sequence and then only lets its foot off the throttle just long enough to place viewers back at the beginning of 2009 and familiar with Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger once again before thrusting them into the throws of the reasons this movie exists. The toughest challenge a movie about the "Miracle on the Hudson" was always going to face was going to be finding a new angle in which to present the story to audiences who were witness to an onslaught of media coverage around the actual event; what was there to the story we didn't already know? Turns out director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (who has only written three feature screenplays the last of which was the 2007 thriller “Perfect Stranger” starring Bruce Willis and Halle Berry) had plenty of material as the not so well documented aspect of the aforementioned "Miracle on the Hudson" was the fact the NTSB conducted an investigation as to whether or not Captain Sully could have in fact made it back to a runway instead of landing a pricey plane in the middle of a river. And so, what Eastwood has is a David and Goliath story of sorts where the line between good and bad is drawn early and distinctly with the script simultaneously evaluating the psyche of a man who happened to be in the right place during a bad situation that would result in him having to separate reality from the strange swirl of whatever kind of life was happening immediately following his unprecedented landing. And on many different levels, no less. This not so well publicized aspect of Sully's story combined with the revelatory state of mind Tom Hanks brings to his performance, some critical editing by Blu Murray (a frequent collaborator of Eastwood's, but someone who's never taken lead on one of his films) that lends these familiar events a whole new level of tension all packed into that slim running time make “Sully” a consistently perceptive interpretation of the events of January 15, 2009 that stands to be largely effective and appropriately affecting.
Editing is key here. As a director, Eastwood is no stranger to methodical pacing (just ask “J. Edgar”), but there seems a keen awareness of how much meaty material one can pull from Sully's plight and an understanding that to try and stretch said material into a two hour dramatic powerhouse would only have the adverse effect and result in a strained and meandering final product. Rather, Eastwood and Murray take us not through the simple (and somewhat expected) motions of crash/celebration/investigation, but instead interestingly mix up the timeline of the events and how we see them unfold allowing for certain events to be reinforced by other moments in Sully's life that give the main series of events more weight and a stronger presence within their own story. It is to be expected that a movie based on a true story will deliver some type of backstory around our main character or at least a few flashbacks that help audiences understand what shaped the protagonist to become who they are at the moment of the main narrative and naturally we get a few on the nose moments such as these in “Sully.” What helps these moments not become stale or rote though, is the fact Eastwood doesn't hover on them for long. These moments are fleeting and informing while feeling inherent to the way the director has chosen to relay his version of the story. They don't come with baggage or exposition, but are instead inserted in moments of deep thought or contemplation when the titular character needs them most. In this way, they are not only meant to give viewers a glimpse behind the curtain and mind, but are meant to play as reassurance to Hanks' Sully as he becomes further disoriented and overwhelmed by the amount of attention and scrutiny he's receiving.
Dropping us into the mind of Sully via his anxiety we are witness to a perspective one may not have previously considered given the narrative around the story when it originally occurred was that Sully was an out and out hero. By casting Hanks, America's favorite actor, in the role there is this immediate sense of trust that Sully did in fact do the right thing to the best of his ability because we trust that Hanks can do no wrong. It's a smart play on the part of Eastwood and his casting department given we never doubt Sully's credibility and are instead more compassionate to what he has to endure and his tormented mentality in the aftermath due largely to the NTSB putting alternate scenarios in his head when there was nothing to complain about in the real-life scenario Sully created. Eastwood, with the aid of Murray's editing, plays a lot with perception here allowing for a film that could have easily been a strict by the book biopic to feel more nuanced meaning we genuinely come to understand the weight of the situation because we're allowed inside the headspace of the man who would determine the outcome of an abnormal and rather extraordinary situation. Combining the aftermath of such events with those of the two hundred and eight seconds it took for the dual engine failure and Sully's instinctual decisions to land the plane on the Hudson River to take place “Sully” strangely enough works in the favor of Eastwood who layers in the tension by showing us first how things could have gone down, then how things did go down, followed by an evaluation of how things maybe should have gone down that is then challenged by re-visiting what Sully and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) actually executed ultimately reinforcing the full extent of just how successful they were given how bad things could have actually turned out.
It is through these shifts in perspective, but not necessarily shifts in opinion that Eastwood is able to garner real drama from these well-known events. In what may be one of the more daring, but certainly rewarding choices in a film this year Eastwood devotes large amounts of screen time to repeated views of the crash sequence so that we may become as familiar with it as those who lived it AKA the character through which we're experiencing the story. By changing how we might perceive these events Eastwood allows us to draw our own conclusions while clearly swaying us in the indisputable direction that comes to be supported by fact. While this may all seem something of a given as this movie had to have more than the news reports relayed to exist in any capacity “Sully” remains a film that feels it would be easy to under appreciate because it does execute its intentions with such ease. There is no ruffling of the feathers, no attempt to do something necessarily exceptional or break the mold, and beyond breaking down the fractured mind and spirit Sully was left with after being chastised for what he believed was simply "doing his job," the film doesn't really care to mess with any existential items or major themes. “Sully,” much as it seems Eastwood is himself, is a no-frills, straightforward type of movie that tells a well-known story, adds a few unexpected caveats, and does so in a compelling and efficient enough fashion to be truly admired.
To the extent that “Sully” desires to chronicle how Captain Sullenberger was being heralded by the public and the media for his unprecedented feat of aviation skill while at the same time undergoing an investigation that threatened to destroy his reputation and career the film is more a triumph due largely to the coming together of the cast and crew, much like in the real life events, to accomplish a singular and unique vision that will see them through one hell of a story to a happy ending. Though Hanks, like Sully, is the centerpiece for which all other actions and characters are anchored and to which none of this would be possible without it is still up to the supporting characters to make the film feel whole. This remains evident through a wonderful supporting turn from Eckhart and a cast of familiar character actors in more minor roles that radiate authenticity and humanity in otherwise strict and tactical conversations and circumstances. The presence of Mike O'Malley and Anna Gunn could easily be taken for granted, but they willingly play NTSB board members who sport the clear agenda of operating on their own self-interests rather than that of a full career by a pilot whose decisions saved the lives of every single soul he carried on board his aircraft that day. Speaking of the souls on board Flight 1549, Eastwood casts an array of familiar faces in minor roles as if to subconsciously assure audiences that despite these not being people whose names we might know that we still recognize them and in turn recognize that they could just as easily be us. Sam Huntington, Autumn Reeser, Jeffrey Nordling, Molly Hagan and Marcia DeBonis stand out especially. The only real casualty here is Laura Linney who, as great an actress as she can be, is relegated to standing in a kitchen and talking on a phone for her entire part and in attempting to elicit as much drama as possible from such limited material she overplays and overstays her welcome. It certainly doesn't help that her stock spouse character is more grating than supportive either. Given the caliber at which Hanks is operating as well and the insight his performance conveys through Eastwood and the scripts' choices to take us inside the head of Captain Sullenberger “Sully” stands above what it could have been, but despite all of these things that can be described with any number of positive adjectives by the time the film comes to a close one is left with that feeling that while what has just been experienced is easy to admire it may not stick with you like it seems it should.