Movie Review: Sully

Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks stick the landing in this story of the famed "Miracle on the Hudson" pilot, one of the year's best films



Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Holt McCallany, Jerry Ferrara, Max Adler, Sam Huntington, Wayne Bastrup, Valerie Mahaffey, Jeff Kober, Mike O’Malley, Chris Bauer, Gary Weeks, Wilbur Fitzgerald, Brett Rice, Jeremy Luke, Robert Pralgo, Patch Darragh, Doris McCarthy. Written by Todd Komarnicki.

You’re probably familiar with the story of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a commercial flight in New York’s Hudson River after a birdstrike took out both his engines, saving the lives of all 155 passengers aboard.

The entire incident, from the plane hitting the birds to the daring water landing, took place within a few minutes. If you’re like me, you’ve seen all the media coverage of the 2009 event, the interviews with the Captain and the BBC documentary, and maybe even read Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters

You might be wondering: what does Clint Eastwood’s new movie, based on the 2009 novel, have to add?

Going into the film, I anticipated a sturdy drama with disaster movie elements that climaxes with the Hudson miracle, and everyone goes home happy.

But the climactic scenes in Sully don’t invoke the Miracle on the Hudson. Instead, they revolve around simulated test flights through a computer-generated New York. And here’s the shocking thing: they’re even more exciting than the actual water-landing, re-created in great detail earlier in the movie.

That’s because Sully is not about the water landing: it’s about Chesley Sullenberger. This is a movie about a man who did a great thing and saved 155 lives, but his toughest battle was fought afterwards; when he had to prove to the higher powers – and perhaps more importantly, to himself – that yes, he really was a hero.

Tom Hanks stars as Sully, and you couldn’t ask for a better personality to fill the role. Hanks might seem a little young for the part – aged here with a stark white-haired makeover – but he’s actually a few years older than the real Sully was in 2009.

At the outset of the film, Sullenberger is jogging in New York City shortly after the landing and media blitz, as he and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have been sequestered in an area hotel for an FAA investigation. He’s got a lot on his mind.

That’s because FAA investigators, played by Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley, and Jamey Sheridan, tell him he might have made the wrong decision: they’ve crunched the numbers and ran the computer simulations, and all the data says that he could have made it safely back to LaGuardia after the birdstrike.

No, Sully might not have been a hero: he might have unnecessarily put all those lives at risk and simply got lucky that things worked out the way they did.

Laura Linney stars as Sully’s caring wife, but due to the scope of the film shares no scenes with Hanks; I liked how the film subtly develops the relationship between husband and wife through phone conversations alone, while never feeling invasive or extraneous.

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In flashbacks, the water landing is faithfully re-created. This is clearly the film’s big draw, and Eastwood milks it for all it’s worth, replaying it in full from no less than three perspectives: air traffic controllers, passengers and flight crew in the cabin, and ultimately, Sullenberger and Skiles in the cockpit.

But the “miracle” is not the point of the movie. The man is. And everything comes together in Sully’s dramatic courtroom-esque finale, where the Captain makes his case and the director brilliantly crafts nail-biting sequences of suspense featuring… four characters we have never met playing a video game.

Sully is a master-class in storytelling, and a perfect example of how writers and filmmakers can shape a relatively straightforward narrative into something that hits all the right notes at all the right moments with the use of a non-linear technique.

It’s not flashy. It’s not epic, running a brief 90+ minutes. It’s almost shockingly low-key, considering the incredible event that forms its centerpiece. Most reviews, I expect, will be positive-but-muted (at the closing fadeout, many in my audience seemed surprised the movie was over).

But this is a near-perfect movie, and masterfully told. Sully is director Eastwood’s finest work in years, and likely to earn both him and star Hanks Oscar nominations.

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