Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Ann Cusack, Jane Gabbert, Molly Hagan
MPAA Rating: (for some peril and brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 9/9/16
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 8, 2016
The centerpiece of Sully is a second-by-second recreation of the 2009 water landing of a passenger plane on the Hudson River. We see that landing twice during the movie. The first time, one will notice that the sequence spends little time in the cockpit. In fact, the key decision-making process of the pilot isn't shown the first time.
Instead, in a sequence that's finely orchestrated by director Clint Eastwood, we watch from the cabin, as passengers and flight attendants slowly register the eerie absence of the sound of whirring engines. We watch from private ferries on the river, where crew members spotted the plane ditch and went into action without question. We watch from an air traffic controller's terminal, where a series of calls are made to nearby airports, while there's nearly complete radio silence from the one person whose input matters the most—the pilot of that plane.
The point is that everyone—from the passengers to the crew, from air traffic controllers to the staff of the towers at two airports, from the ferry personnel to scuba divers with the New York Police Department—did their jobs and more in the face of potential tragedy. That's why the silence from the cockpit matters, because the lingering question—the movie's central one—is whether or not the pilot did his.
Of course, we already know the answer, since, as the screenplay by Todd Komarnicki repeatedly points out, the emergency landing resulted in an international media circus. We know that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (whose book Highest Duty, co-written with Jeffrey Zaslow, is the basis for the script) was a hero that day, making a dangerous but necessary decision and, thankfully, possessing the skills required to accomplish the seemingly impossible task.
The movie's central conflict, though, happens behind the scenes of that circus, before all the evidence is analyzed. It's doubt.
Did Sully, played with cool professionalism by Tom Hanks, make the right decision? Was his quick assessment of the damage to the plane, caused by a flock of geese, correct? Could he have landed at either of the airports that the air traffic controller suggested? Did the 40-year-veteran pilot put 155 lives, including his own, at risk for no reason.
These are the questions put forward by members of the National Transportation Safety Board, who serve as intermittent antagonists in a story that doesn't really need them. What resonates more is how these questions haunt Sully, who begins the movie dreaming of what could have happened, as he maneuvers the airliner through Manhattan skyscrapers until gravity does its thing.
The dream and what it represents are components of a through line that, like so many of the other more intriguing angles within this story, is passed over in favor of a clinical analysis and recreation of what happened that January day. The questions are primarily matters of procedure, not self-reflection or—as is stated once, only to move forward from it—the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. The media attention is an uncomfortable inconvenience for Sully (He can't even escape from his hotel room without being faced with news reports on the event), not the result of a ratings-hungry entity worthy of scrutiny. The truth of the landing is fodder for a climactic—not to mention hasty and convenient—rebuke of an authority that condemns before all the facts are in, not, well, the truth on its own merits.
The movie is trapped in an unfortunate middle ground between examining the toll of the incident on the people involved and simply presenting the incident from the perspective of objective history. In theory, the former approach is more worthwhile within the context of an already-known story.
Komarnicki, though, reduces it to a handful of scenes that don't make much of an impact amid the more prominent scenes involving the flight and the investigation into what happened. Mainly, those personal scenes involve Sully recalling his life before becoming a commercial airline pilot (learning to fly as a young man and another close call while he was in the Air Force), as well as conversations with Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), his co-pilot on the fateful flight, and his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), whose scenes all take place on the phone. Both are here primarily to offer moral support for Sully and little else.
The reenactment approach works better. It's clear that Komarnicki has done his research in detailing what happened, when it happened, and how it happened. The landing sequences (The first one also includes the rescue of everyone on the plane) are incredibly helpful in the way they document, on a point-by-point basis, the procedures of an emergency landing, the evacuation of passengers, and the rescue operation. Eastwood's distant, methodical approach to the sequences may not generate much tension, but the focus on the logistics of the incident is, not only the point, but also worth appreciating.
What we learn from Sully is that the "Miracle on the Hudson" wasn't much of a miracle. It was the result of the right people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. The movie convinces us of this fact, which we already knew, but isn't convincing as a piece of drama.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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