One of the traits Clint Eastwood has embodied over his lengthy career both in front of the camera and behind has been the rugged American spirit of steady faithfulness, of living life well in the day-to-day. That’s why the director’s sensibilities appear to be such a perfect match for a behind-the-scenes look at Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and the “miracle on the Hudson” that enthralled the nation on January 15, 2009. Sully is Eastwood’s inspirational nod to the marvelous things that can happen when we champion the traits of perseverance and steadfast devotion in our own lives.
Tom Hanks portrays Sully in a perfect casting choice. So much of Sully’s story revolves around the fact that he doesn’t view himself as a hero, but simply a man doing his job. Despite Hanks’ worldwide fame, he somehow embodies the spirit of the “everyman” better than any actor working today (see: the recent Captain Phillips). Here, he plays a man whose commitment to his ideals and confidence in his own abilities allow himself to be anchored during the greatest challenge of his life.
The film wisely avoids opening with the infamous “forced water landing,” in which all 155 souls on board U.S. Airways flight 1549 were spared. Instead, we see the barrage of questions Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are forced to confront, both from the ravenous and fawning media and the decidedly less enthused National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB is convinced that, despite the positive outcome, Sully endangered the lives of the passengers by not attempting to return to La Guardia airport after a flock of birds flew into the plane at the low altitude of 2800 feet, taking out both engines. In between the hearings, Sully grapples with the emotional impact the ordeal is having on his wife (Laura Linney) and daughters, and is plagued by vivid nightmares and doubts over whether or not he did the right thing. “I’ve flown thousands of flights and delivered millions of passengers safely,” Sully says. “But in the end, I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.”
Watching a series of NTSB hearings doesn’t sound like riveting drama, which is what makes the skill with which Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki tease out both the revelations and the smaller character moments all the more remarkable. Both the dialogue and camerawork are incredibly realistic, factors that really put the audience in the center of the story.
Of course, much like Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, the centerpiece of the film is the landing itself. And it’s absolutely breathtaking. The film smartly reveals the whole picture of the event in several flashbacks, which allows us to view it within the larger context of the emotions the characters are feeling at that particular moment. It’s a smart narrative device, and it gives the film much of its punch. We do get a couple of repeated scenes, but even then we get to see the same conversations and events from multiple perspectives.
And that is perhaps Sully’s greatest strength—it’s not really about Sully. Sure, he’s the center focus of the story, but I loved seeing the miraculous landing from the perspective of the air traffic controller who thinks he lost the plane (“no one survives a water landing,” he incorrectly believes), or the coast guard boat pilot who can scarcely believe his eyes, or the passengers of the plane themselves, who are in total and complete shock that they’re not dead.
Eastwood’s camera gives ample focus to many players both big and small, driving home the message that one of the biggest miracles we can experience in this life is not really much of a miracle at all. From Sully and Skiles to the stewardesses, passengers, firefighters, policeman and coast guard members, the reason everyone walked away from the Hudson that cold January day in one piece is because everyone performed their jobs to the very utmost of their ability. Everyone has a responsibility, and everyone has a role to play. It may not be a “miracle,” and it may not fit our Hollywood notions of heroism, but, in a time of crisis, it means everything. This engrossing drama enforces that important message with quiet, beautifully understated grace.