Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” leads us through the strangest kind of docudrama, nonfiction with a happy ending and surprisingly deep meanings.
Everyone remembers Jan. 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 hit a flock of geese above LaGuardia Airport, lost both its engines and managed an amazing touchdown in the Hudson River, saving all 155 lives aboard. Tom Hanks delivers his latest note-perfect work, an understated, subdued but powerful performance as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who was immediately hailed as a national hero.
Hanks is perfect for the role because he’s an actor we know, admire and care about. As one member of the cast tells Sully, he delivered the best news New York City heard in a long time, “especially with an airplane in it.”
End of story, right? Well, no.
By turning an emergency that lasted a little more than two minutes into an accomplished, unsettling adventure thriller, Eastwood is at the controls of a movie machine that other directors could send skidding off the runway. Despite a few in-flight wobbles from the screenplay’s repeated flashbacks, this is excellent from takeoff to landing.
The artistic craftsmanship is breathtaking. “Sully” is flawlessly factual in its immersive, realistic flight scenes, except when it chooses to be stunningly imaginary. It shows repeated visual references to Sept. 11, not to trigger cheap emotional impacts but as a look within the serious, self-controlled pilot’s uneasy psyche.
His sleep after the blessedly safe water landing (one doesn’t term it a “crash,” Sully informs us) is broken by a nightmare of a horrific impact in midtown Manhattan. He bolts awake and takes late-night runs around the area to calm his nerves. He’s being held over in New York while the media sell a version of himself far different from who he is and while the National Transportation Safety Board holds a tense, blame-setting inquiry to determine if he made the safest, most prudent decisions throughout the crisis.
Eastwood gives us an up-close-and-personal look at Sully’s demeanor from the collision, to the following avalanche of awkward TV scrutiny, to the federal inquisition about why he chose not to try to make it to one of the area’s several available landing spots. It brings us to hard moments he faced, his own post-trauma concerns about his judgments, his job and economic security.
Like all meaningful films, this is about more than what’s on the surface. While it celebrates Sully’s cool composure and focused thinking, it’s not a rah-rah salute to an everyman superhero, nor is it macho escapist fare. It’s real-world stuff, more complex than that. What’s inside the lines is examining how we define success and failure in ourselves and others. The subtext here moves past Flight 1549’s sputtering jets to the engines driving the characters, the motivations that light a fire beneath them. After the emergency, Sully understandably behaves like a hostage to powers he can’t control. Even when you walk away from a near-disaster, it can leave you bruised inside.
The NTSB officials invite him to hit a wall of anxiety, asking whether he is facing any problems at home, or drinking much lately. His calls home to his wife, waiting thousands of miles away, put Laura Linney in the phone-worrying company of Emily Watson and Keira Knightley in “Everest.” He simply wants the world to recognize that “we did our jobs” and leave him alone.
Eastwood shot almost entirely with Imax cameras, a feature film first. It works so well that it harms a few aspects of the story. Scenes of the Airbus in flight appear a bit computer-contrived, while scenes from New York City sidewalks are so lifelike you can smell the street food carts two blocks away. He never cheats to exaggerate the story, doesn’t add an ounce of dead weight or dramatic padding. He’s a disciplined professional making a film about a disciplined professional, and it works.