Many critics, including this one, wondered how director Clint Eastwood was going to turn a 208 second event into a feature film, much less a good one. But how to adapt a modern human miracle for the big screen without turning it into an average action-thriller or cheesy drama?
On 15 January 2009 veteran pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger becomes a (inter)national hero. Shortly after taking off from NYC’s LeGuardia airport, the passenger jet he is flying is struck by a flock of geese, taking out both engines. With just seconds to decide the next course of action, the pilot realises he cannot make it back to the closest airports and that trying to make a water landing might be best. Water landings are almost always fatal by the way. And yet, the captain not only makes the landing, every single one of the 155 passenger and crew members survives, and only a few are injured, none critically. And with the quick response times from the coast guard and emergency personnel, the icy water also didn’t claim any victims.
The film, Sully, is not a thriller that builds up to this event, but rather a beautiful character drama that examines the impact the event has on the man himself, and the consequences of what happened. Following the event – which is split up into pieces revealed throughout the film – Sully’s name is splashed on newspapers and television screens across the world, something he’s wholly unprepared for. Photographers follow him around, and every journalist wants an interview.
Following any unforeseen landing, transport authorities across must investigate. Thus, in order to create a drama around a four-minute event that everyone knows has a happy ending, the tension centres around Sully’s personal difficulty in dealing with what happened and as well as focusing on the probe into the incident. It’s soon clear that those examining this event are hostile and trying to prove that the water landing, or ‘crash’ as they label it, could have been avoided.
The humble Sully (who couldn’t have been portrayed by any actor more solid than Tom Hanks) is uncomfortable in the spotlight. After all, he was simply doing his job when he tried to take the best course of action to save the most amount of lives. He holds up well while he and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) – who fully supports the captain – are grilled about why they didn’t take other action, when simulations might suggest the aircraft could have safely landed at a nearby airport and while preliminary technical information suggests one engine might still have had power.
While trying to navigate the media frenzy and relenteless questions, Sully has nightmares in which he overshoots the river and crashes into city buildings. He wakes up in a sweat, and then goes jogging in the streets of New York City where he can lose himself in the anonymity of the shadow of city lights where no strangers come up to spontaneously hug him. But despite his calm and refusal to lose his temper during questioning by a panel of, no other words for it, smug assholes (the National Transportation Safety Board by the way is very angry at being turned into villains), he is willing to fight back, prove his decision was correct, and defend his reputation and his job.
Hanks is one of the best choices to play this kind of character. He convincingly conveys Sully’s humility and discomfort at being thrust into the spotlight, his conviction in his decisions, but also his moments of fragility (insomnia and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) and self-doubt. “I did the best I could,” he tells his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney). Hanks shoulders most of the weight in the film, the supporting cast really just there to provide a prop-up, albeit an excellent one.
The dependable, solid Sully is a little more ‘feel good’ than many of Eastwood’s films over the past two decades (Mystic River, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling and American Sniper). Invictus, about the relationship between Nelson Mandela and 1995 Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, is perhaps an exception although that film is still a lot heavier than Sully. The reason Captain Sullenberger became a hero was in part because the Hudson river landing happened just as the financial crisis was in full swing. People needed something good, something to unite them, to create a sense of ‘common humanity’ as the pilot himself has said; an unselfishness when the world was being torn apart by the hubris and greed of as few. Sully embodies that humanity, refusing to take all the credit for the landing, praising his crew for being calm and ready, as well as those who rushed to the rescue.
Similarly, this film is being released at a time when terrorism is hitting ever closer to home across the world, when the U.S. is being divided by Trumpism and police brutality, and the effects of the financial crisis are still being felt. That’s why box office estimates for the film are so good. At the time of writing, forecasts are at $32 billion, meaning it will dominate opening weekend.
Sully isn’t an attempt to make art out of history nor is it a thriller-drama focused on special effects and an action-hero . It’s a film that is as comfortingly competent as Captain Sullenberger himself. (Wait for the credits where the original passengers and real-life Sully meet up on the anniversary of the landing.)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Rating: 3½ out of 5
SA release date: 09 September 2016