Telluride: 'Sully' Lands as Tom Hanks Makes a Bid for an Oscar Nomination (Analysis)

Sully Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Sully Still - Publicity - H 2016

The first-anywhere screening of SullyClint Eastwood's drama starring Tom Hanks as US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger — was the marquee attraction of night one of the 43rd Telluride Film Festival. The reaction of festgoers (polite applause and respectful post-screening chatter) wasn't as exuberant as the reaction earlier in the day to fest-opener La La Land, but then again, Sully's story is quite different, to say the least.

One might assume that Sully — like many other recent movies, from 2012's Argo and Zero Dark Thirty to another film about a flight gone wrong, 2006's United 93 — is a film where audiences know the ending before it begins. However, it turns out that it does not belong in that category at all. In fact, the story we all know — "The Miracle on the Hudson," wherein a plane lost both of its engines to a bird strike but none of the 155 souls on board died thanks to the brilliance of its experienced pilot — is just the beginning of the tale.

Instead, the film focuses on the aftermath of the near-crash — the successful water landing — which left Sully feeling less like the hero he was portrayed as in the media than maybe the cause of the crash itself. The pic itself feels like a nightmare, from a powerful first scene through numerous revisitations of the flight itself (which will give anyone pause before flying again). In that sense, it evokes 2012's Flight, but unlike the character that Denzel Washington played in that film en route to a best actor Oscar nom, Hanks' Sully ultimately doesn't believe he did anything wrong. 

What makes this somber film palatable is Hanks' deeply moving performance. We're used to seeing the actor play either an all-American everyman or a hero. In this case, he plays someone who is both — like the main characters in many of Howard Hawks' films, and many of Eastwood's, too, Hanks' Sully is just a man committed to doing his job well and getting home to his family. Grey-haired and mustached, with little dialogue apart from some monologues at the end, the actor is anything but showy. But it's hard to imagine anyone playing the part better.

It's been 16 years since Hanks, a two-time Academy Award winner, was last nominated for an Oscar. Partly, that's because he often has played understated parts, and partly, it's because many audiences take him for granted. For those same reasons, I'm afraid he may be left out again this year. But if, like Meryl Streep in the year of The Iron Lady, he offers indications that the recognition of the Hollywood community still means something to him, he might just get it.