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A vigorous and involving salute to professionalism and being good at your job, Sully vividly portrays the physical realities and human elements in the dramatic safe landing of a crippled US Airways jet on the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. An elegant and eloquent docudrama, Clint Eastwood’s 35th feature as a director is also, at 96 minutes, the shortest of all his films, which well serves this to-the-point account of a potential tragedy with a happy ending. With a white-haired and mustachioed Tom Hanks in the title role, this taut, upbeat drama looks to play well with a wide general audience.
“It’s been a while since New York had news this good, especially with an airplane in it,” one character remarks, which neatly sums up the appeal of a yarn that offered all the seeds of tragedy. When a freak encounter with a large flock of birds shut down both engines of an A320 with 155 people on board two minutes after taking off from La Guardia Airport, pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger quickly decided that the now-descending plane didn’t have the power to make it back to La Guardia or another airport. He therefore determined to make a water landing, which happened less than four minutes later.
The incident is repeated, in variations, several times over the course of the time-jumping script by Todd Komarnicki, because what looked like an act of logic, wisdom and heroism to those whose lives were saved instead was severely questioned by the National Transportation Safety Board, which initially argued that the plane could have turned back. This results in some tense and sleepless nights for Sully but, dramatically speaking, the story is the inverse of that of the 2012 aviation drama Flight, in which Denzel Washington’s pilot may have saved the day but had some personal issues eminently worthy of the inquiry board’s attention.
An alarming opening sequence illustrates what probably would have happened had Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), decided to try to make it back to where they took off — a fiery crash into Manhattan buildings. Such images haunt Sully and send him out to jog through the nocturnal city streets and along the river where his plane came to rest. Reporters hound him, his wife (Laura Linney) remains in high-stress mode back home and Sully, notwithstanding all the personal and public adulation he’s received, can’t help rethinking the whole incident and fearing that the investigators will somehow show that one of the engines retained sufficient thrust to allow the jet to keep flying. Some TV commentators are already suggesting that Sully is a fraud who made a blundering decision that could result in his suspension and no pension.
A 42-year veteran, Sully is the kind of decent, upright, right-minded fellow who used to figure in movies all the time from the 1930s-1950s, a reliable Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda or Gregory Peck type of guy you could always count on to do the right thing. The last man like this to anchor a film onscreen was probably in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, in which the character was played by — who else? — Hanks. When Sully says, “I don’t feel like a hero. I was just a man doing a job,” you might feel like you’re watching a Howard Hawks film of more than half a century ago.
But while this feels like an old-fashioned sentiment, perhaps it shouldn’t, and it’s easy to surmise that it also fits squarely with Eastwood’s philosophical view of things. Even now, in his mid-80s, he’s a man who, like Spielberg, rarely lets a year go by without making a new film and does it his own way, with little fuss. He is, at his core, a professional, and it’s clearly on this basis that he strongly connects with Sully, a man whose character is defined by how he does his job.
When you get right down to it, there’s not a whole lot of story in Komarnicki’s screenplay, only a central incident that can be examined from multiple perspectives and a main character whose core values are put to the test and found valid. A half-hour in, the film serves up a comprehensive account of the flight up to the point of impact then, a bit later, reveals the rather more complex details of what happened when the passengers had to be quickly evacuated in winter conditions.
A couple of panicky passengers end up in the 36-degree water, most of them tensely don life-jackets, file out the emergency exits and stand on the two main wings. Of course, the crew and captain are the last to leave, although Sully has no way to know at this point whether everyone made it out or not.
Crisply shot by Tom Stern in great part with Imax cameras and seen to impressive advantage in this format, the film is distinguished by essentially seamless visual effects that make all aspects of the highly photogenic near-catastrophe riveting to watch; the film is supremely well-crafted in all regards.
One striking difference between this and most of Eastwood’s previous work, however, is the pacing. After working for four decades with master editor Joel Cox and making very few films that came in at under two hours, Eastwood took this occasion to promote Blu Murray from assistant editor, a position he had filled under Cox since 2006. The result is swift, fleet-footed cutting that imparts a noticeably different feel from most of the director’s more measured work, a snappy momentum that perfectly suits the nature of the material.
Made up to look older than his years, Hanks confidently carries the film as a man of undoubted decency and judgment who is nonetheless made to question, however incorrectly and briefly, actions prudently made under conditions of great stress. Secondary characters are strictly one-dimensional, with Eckhart’s less experienced co-pilot staunchly backing the old pro in the left-hand seat and Linney confined to pouring out concern long-distance over the phone.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production: Malpaso, Flashlight Films, Kennedy/Marshall
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan, Ann Cusack, Jane Gabbert, Molly Hagan, Holt McCallany, Chris Bauer, Patch Darragh
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Capt. Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger with Jeffrey Zaslow
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Frank Marshall, Allyn Stewart, Tim Moore
Executive producers: Steve Mnuchin, Kipp Nelson, Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: James J. Murakami
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editor: Blu Murray
Music: Christian Jacob and the Tierney Sutton Band
Visual effects: Michael Owens
Casting: Geoffrey Miclat
Rated PG-13, 96 minutes
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