“A delay is better than a disaster”
I found myself siding with snarky detractors when Clint Eastwood announced he was tackling a biopic about Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger because it seemed rather anticlimactic. Could you truly find a captivating feature length film in the paltry 208-seconds from engine failure to splash landing? We already know everyone survives and already hail the pilot as the hero he deserves to be known as. So where’s the drama beyond reenactment better suited for a documentary focusing on those who actually experienced the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’? Unsurprisingly the answer to this question lies in the aftermath with bureaucratic t-crosses and i-dots like so many other heroic acts. A plane was destroyed, rescue crews were dispatched, and the world found itself in a tizzy. But who was footing the bill?
It’s a sad state of affairs tainting the uplifting tale of courage at the heart of Eastwood’s Sully, but this is America in the twenty-first century. When something goes wrong—no matter how right that wrong ends up—blame must fall. And rather than side with Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) must discover whether what occurred was an act of God or foolhardy decision by the 42-year veteran at the yoke. So Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley), Ben Edwards (Jamey Sheridan), and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) run the computer simulations, ask the pilots pryingly personal questions to try and trip up their stories, and do everything they can to reveal how returning to LaGuardia was possible after all.
This is where the drama enters because the man who inexplicably landed a domestic aircraft on a river is suddenly questioning his actions. Yes he saved 155 passengers and crew, but did he put them in danger too? Were his instincts wrong about both engines failing? Was his eyeballed hunch about being too low accurate enough to stake the lives of so many? Is a nightmare depicting a fiery Manhattan crash the end result of banking left instead of right or merely his brain justifying an insane gut reaction? And would four decades on the job and a burgeoning “safety expert” career be erased from existence because his heroics were more reckless than necessary? The plane is still underwater and yet he’s being burned at the stake.
So rather than supply a step-by-step document, screenwriter Todd Komarnicki adapts Sullenberger’s and Jeffrey Zaslow‘s book Highest Duty into a character study diving inside Sully’s mind. We’re introduced to the events via nightmare and walked through smug grins and bean counters refusing to acknowledge the human element at play. We watch Sully unravel as memories of what he did and what he could have done drown out the platitudes from the masses, skepticism from the NTSB, and worry from his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) desperate to know he’s okay and able to continue flying as bills mount at home. We watch as he remembers the joy of his first flight and the stressful relief of his first landing under duress. We watch as Sully questions his very identity.
These are the things that render Sully an enthralling film because they show a man rather than a hero. Sullenberger was thrust into the spotlight of Katie Couric and David Letterman interviews while awaiting the verdict that decides whether he’d ever fly again and he handled it with as much external grace as internal anxiety. Yes everything is set-up to anoint him a saint from the union reps (Holt McCallany and Chris Bauer) by his side to Skiles’ unwavering loyalty and gratitude, but why shouldn’t it? We need to see this side of the witch-hunt so viewers understand that that’s exactly what’s happening behind the scenes. It might not be personal, but blatantly ignoring what it was like in the cockpit sure makes it feel like it is.
We’re able to forgive the worshipping—even a courtroom grandstanding effort that may not be grandstanding since Sully is so confidently poised and even-keeled—because it’s impossible not to agree with it all. A guy like Michael Rapaport‘s barkeep Pete isn’t fawning as much as enjoying the moment with a mixture of applause and friendly ribbing. Hearing Sam Huntington‘s Jeff Kolodjay declare how cool it is he’s alive doesn’t feel forced because he survived a plane crash and has earned the reaction. This film’s as much a way to immortalize Sully as it is the flight attendants, first responders, and good Samaritans who did their part alongside him to ensure no one froze to death in the water. It’s about humanity overcoming grave odds with compassion and courage.
That doesn’t mean Eastwood isn’t also supplying some nicely constructed aerial shots and interesting closed-room sets courtesy of cinematographer Tom Stern with a fascinating plot delivering exactly what we need at the exact right moment (we see the landing twice, first from outside the cockpit and then from within). There’s enough getting to know certain passengers (with familiar faces including Autumn Reeser and Valerie Mahaffey) to feel the tension and suspense of turbulence and impact. Anyone who has ever flown before will understand the helplessness of being a passenger and anyone who hasn’t might never want to after watching. No punches are pulled because the entire film hinges on the veracity of this experience and how different it is from videogame fabrications when mortality hangs in the balance.
Eckhart is a delight as the more outgoing and personable of the two, fearlessly speaking up and cracking jokes to diffuse the air of uncertainty surrounding them. We learn the two never met before this fateful flight (Skiles admits Googling Sully) and yet he has his pilot’s back every step of the way. Linney and O’Malley are good in mostly thanklessly roles providing sounding boards to kick Sully’s mind in gear as Eastwood’s film becomes Hanks’ to carry into the awards’ conversation on his back. Without a supporting powerhouse like Captain Phillips‘ Barkhad Abdi to relieve some pressure, Hanks must lead us through Sully’s emotional landscape and thought process with authenticity for the bulk of our intrigue. And he proves yet again why he’s one of the best.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS NORTH AMERICA INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – U.S., CANADA, BAHAMAS & BERMUDA © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINME Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) TOM HANKS as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and AARON ECKHART as Jeff Skiles in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “SULLY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS NORTH AMERICA INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – U.S., CANADA, BAHAMAS & BERMUDA © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINME Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) AARON ECKHART as Jeff Skiles and TOM HANKS as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “SULLY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
 © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS NORTH AMERICA INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC – U.S., CANADA, BAHAMAS & BERMUDA © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC., VILLAGE ROADSHOW FILMS (BVI) LIMITED AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINME Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: LAURA LINNEY as Lorrie Sullenberger in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “SULLY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.