Released 2016. Director: Clint Eastwood
ON A COLD MORNING IN JANUARY 2009, a distraught passenger airliner sliced through the sky above New York and landed in the waters of the Hudson River. The Miracle on the Hudson, as it has come to be known, is now the subject of the 38th directorial effort by Clint Eastwood. At age 86, Eastwood has lost none of his filmmaking acumen and finesse. Sully is as economical and streamlined as a major Hollywood movie could be.
What could have been a fiery crash was averted in a harrowing water landing. We are all aware of that news story. What the movie dwells on is the aftermath faced by the pilot, Captain Chelsey Sullenberger, in what the movie poster billed as “the untold story”.
After landing precariously on the river and saving all 155 lives onboard, Sully is hailed as a hero. Yet when the NTSB starts its investigation the hero is cast in suspicious light. According to simulations enacted by NTSB, an experienced pilot could have turned the plane and returned safely to land at La Guardia airport, instead of taking the dangerous and potentially fatal dive into the Hudson. In almost every accident there is always someone who takes the blame, rightly or otherwise. In this case they need a scapegoat and Sully is the obvious choice.
Eastwood re-enacts the incident when the plane flies into a flock of birds, causing damage to its engines and takes us, in real time, on this white-knuckled flight as passengers suddenly become aware of an impending doom and the pilots make quick decisions to take the plane to the river. This sequence is expertly executed by Eastwood, evoking the tense atmosphere in the cockpit, as well as the frightening spectre of a plane zipping dangerously close to New York buildings, an instant and horrific reminder of 9/11.
Sully is undoubtedly the hero, an ordinary man whose experience and instincts averted a certain disaster. As a character in a movie, in a story, someone like Sully is bland. His depiction has no grey areas. He’s a character without shades or conflicts. His development arc is a straight line without rise and fall. But in this case we are looking at a real-life person, and so I probably should not apply those criteria. In 2012, Denzel Washington also played a pilot whose unusual manoeuvre of flying the plane upside down managed to save his passengers from a fiery crash in Flight. The difference is this fictional character is a bundle of contradictions and grey scales, whose drinking and drug habits played a part in his ability to fly. Sully is a saint by comparison.
In another one of Tom Hanks’ grounded and dependable performances, this is a real person without any dramatic artifice. Yet Eastwood still manages to find the drama in his unabashed celebration of an ordinary hero. Sully may be a little dull, but you cheer for him because Eastwood puts you in the front row of a doomed flight and you walk away alive because of this dull man.
When Sully vindicates himself in front of a hostile NTSB panel with pure instincts and years of skills no computer simulations could hope to beat, it’s as if you’ve witnessed the greatest knock-out punch in boxing history. Eastwood certainly knows how to corral his audiences into hero worship. From now on, I want Sullenberger to be the pilot every time I fly.