‘Sully’ shows that less is more
When you go to see a movie about a heroic American event, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood, you have a pretty good idea what you’re going to get. You’ll see a strong performance from arguably the most likable actor in Hollywood, a film that captures emotion and intensity without going over the top on either, and realistic visual effects that will make you feel like you’re right there in the cockpit with the flight crew of US Airways flight 1549 as they make their terrifying emergency landing in the Hudson. In other words, you’ll go into Sully expecting a quality movie, and that’s precisely what you’ll get.
Hanks is Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the famed veteran pilot who successfully landed the “Miricle on the Hudson” on January 15, 2009. Just a few minutes after takeoff, US Airways Flight 1549 headed right for a flock of geese, resulting in a bird strike that took out both engines and left the plane crippled and losing altitude fast. Sully and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were left with only moments to decide what to do, and there was no real protocol for how to handle the loss of both engines like this. After weighing their options and determining that an attempt to return to LaGuardia or land in New Jersey would almost certainly result in a disastrous crash, Sully decides that the only option is trying to attempt a water landing in the Hudson River. The flight attendants prepare the passengers to brace for impact, and within a couple hundred seconds, the plane is in the river and people are being evacuated from the aircraft. We’ve all seen the footage, and we all remember the heroic incident, particularly because it was so unique. As we hear several times in the film, an emergency water landing with no loss of life and no grave injuries is practically unheard of, making Sully a hero who will go down in aviation history.
I would imagine it’s pretty difficult to take this incident, which Sully says took place over only 208 seconds, and stretch it into a feature length film, so we shift back and forth from the emergency to the investigation of the emergency. Every movie has to have a bad guy, and here the villains are the members of the NTSB (including Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn), who launch a standard investigation of the incident, which includes questioning Sully about his mental state and decision-making process. While I highly doubt the NTSB was as adversarial with the real-life Sullenberger, the film does portray them as constantly trying to find fault in his actions and only praising him as heroic much, much later when they realize the full extent of the challenge he faced on that cold January morning. It’s probably pretty far from the truth, but this is a movie, and our hero has to face some adversity for a satisfying narrative. Besides, who were they going to have as the villains? The geese?
Still, the film manages to give us these emotional and cinematic moments, which are obviously played up for dramatic effect, in a way that never falls into a full-on cheese fest. Yes, Sully’s wife (Laura Linney) realizing how close she came to losing her husband is an emotional moment, but it never becomes a total tear-jerker. Likewise, we get glimpses into the lives of some of the passengers in order to give them faces and backstories rather than a nameless mass of 150 people. While there are emotional reunions for them after they’re pulled from the cold water by the ferries who rushed to the area to help with the rescue, we never linger for too long. The movie is, after all, called Sully, and he’s the one we’re most focused on here.
I can’t help but think about how different this movie would have been in the hands of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Because it is such a heroic and miraculous story, it would have been so easy to tip over into something so cliche it could have been written by a computer algorithm, but instead, Eastwood gives us something that examines the incident from several perspectives, retains all the necessary emotion, and gives us terrifying and thrilling action that feels real and never overdone. Sully is a solid example of how to capture the drama of a historical event without going way too big and exploiting the drama of that event.