THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
The “Miracle on the Hudson” lasted only 208 seconds, so it's perhaps a bit surprising that a 96-minute movie has been made about it. Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed a commercial airplane on the river one cold January morning after both engines failed following a bird strike. Amazingly, every single one of the 155 crew members and passengers on board survived. While this event didn't take long to transpire, director Clint Eastwood finds sufficient drama to fill up Sully, which takes an unexpected – and very welcome – look at this modern hero.
Tom Hanks plays Sully and Aaron Eckhart is co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Set against the backdrop of a sometimes contentious National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the film depicts Sully remembering the events of the day, while also facing the daunting possibility that the officials looking into the incident may deem that he could have made it back to LaGuardia airport. Laura Linney plays Lorraine Sullenberger, who offers support to her husband during his sudden fame and professional scrutiny.
Clint Eastwood was the exact right filmmaker to tell this story. His direct, no-nonsense approach is perfect for the recreation of the water landing. A lot of directors would have flashed it up, or tried to make it “exciting.” Not Eastwood. He presents a very straightforward depiction of how Sully made the decision to land on the Hudson and how first responders rushed to the scene to pull the passengers off the plane's wing. By adhering to a factual, unembellished accounting, Sully proves to be incredibly affecting. You get a sense of the terror and, eventually, the grateful exhilaration felt by those who endured the near-calamity. Just as importantly, you come to understand how Sullenberger's experience, combined with a cool head under pressure, allowed him to make the most reasonable choice in a situation that allowed precious little time for introspection.
That alone would make for a terrific movie. Sully's surprising take on heroism is what takes it to the next level, though. The film presents Sullenberger as a somewhat reluctant hero. Whereas the rest of the country sees him in the hero role, he's shown here haunted by what could have been had he made the wrong decision. Added to that is fret over what the NTSB investigation will find. Will they determine that he could have made it safely back to the airport or to the one in New Jersey? Did he needlessly endanger the lives he's credited with saving? As played by Hanks, Sullenberger refuses to accept the simplicity of the hero label. He views himself as a man guided by his in-the-moment instincts and a basic desire to keep the individuals under his care safe. That feels far more authentic than the put-them-on-a-pedestal approach many films take when telling a real-life story of this magnitude. Sully suggests that there's a certain grey area in heroism, or at least in the mind of the person being hailed.
No other actor could have played this role with the grace that Tom Hanks does. As he did in Captain Phillips, he portrays a very low-key man who is not prone to overreacting. Hanks knows how to pull us in to these characters without grandstanding. Sully's subtle demeanor is, in his hands, something that engages us because we want to observe him more closely. Much of it is in the eyes, so we pay rapt attention as Sully sums up everything taking place around him. It's a fully-dimensional performance that finds Hanks disappearing into the role.
Sully makes an unusual choice in its third act. The NTSB hearing revolves around computer and human simulations recreating the short flight. Eastwood chooses to show us four of these sims. Amazingly, it works. You might think something like this would stop the movie cold. Instead, it is used to illustrate Sully's deepest theme: that the “human factor” in any hero situation counts for a lot. The approach pays off shockingly well.
Aided by superb visual effects that create a you-are-there sensation during the water landing and subsequent rescue, Sully proves to be both an admiring recreation of the Miracle on the Hudson and a poignant reflection on how an ordinary, yet supremely competent man declines to exalt himself as a hero. It's among the finest films of Hanks' and Eastwood's respective careers.
( out of four)
Sully is rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.
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