In Clint Eastwood’s engrossing “Sully,” earnest heroism hits turbulence

Sully - Clint Eastwood Tom HanksSeven years removed from the “Miracle on the Hudson,” it’s a bit silly to think of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger as anything else but a hero.

The longtime pilot used his expertise, gumption and level head to land a major aircraft with failing engines onto the Hudson River and managed to keep everyone on-board alive in the freak landing. Sullenberger, at this point, is the kind of guy getting booked for speaking engagements and book signings at your local Barnes & Noble. He’s a national hero, lauded for saving the lives of many in a moment that could have been plagued with tragedy.

Clint Eastwood’s Sully tells a different story than what we’re used to associating with Sullenberger’s fateful flight. Eastwood’s film spotlights the days after the landing, in which Sully (Tom Hanks) and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are subjected to an onslaught of hearings, interviews and general attention.

The National Transportation Safety Board (made up of actors like Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan) is questioning rather firmly whether or not Sullenberger could have made a safe landing at La Guardia airport if he followed typical protocol – complicated by simulations that suggest a less-aquatic grounding could have been possible. The media is pining for the full story – after all, an airplane landing on a New York river in a post-9/11 world is going to lead the headlines. And, Sullenberger is fielding calls from his worried wife (Laura Linney) back at home. Talk about a hero’s welcome.

Eastwood’s film takes some dramatic license as to what actually took place in real life – many have pointed out that the NTSB’s interviews were more procedural than what’s let on. But Sully does strike a firm nerve in highlighting the self-doubt and stress that weighed on the famed pilot in the wake of the landing. Between the hearings and interviews, Sully is a nervous wreck. After all, the poor guy just averted a national disaster. But, what if it had gone wrong? What if Sully made the wrong call by landing on the Hudson and not turning back to a local airfield? What if the simulations are right? What if this tenured pilot had put all these people in danger?

These are heavy burdens to weigh on anyone – hard questions for anyone to ask. For the film to work, you’ve got to have an actor who can sell this worry, truly make you empathise with his plight. Luckily Eastwood landed all-American national treasure Tom Hanks to play the part. Underneath the magnitude of his name, Hanks really is one of America’s great actors. He plays the convincing, likeable everyman as well as Jimmy Stewart did. He is the Stewart of his generation, though here, he must play on his earnestness to showcase doubt, fear and steadiness.

Hanks’ Sullenberger is soft-spoken and reserved. He’s not ready for the spotlight headed his way, nor does he want it. He was simply a guy doing his job. The actor slips into Sully’s unease and sells each concerned glance like a true pro. It’s not easy for an actor to embody stress – it’s one of the easiest emotions to overact. But for Hanks, he navigates the complex emotions bristling underneath Sullenberger’s calm exterior with an excellent understanding of what the pilot is going through. When the bird hits the engine and it’s all or nothing, Hanks plays it cool and calm, and then when it’s time to get everyone to safety, it’s almost as if Hanks is just another first responder. In a career of impressive performances, Hanks’ take on Sully might be one of his best.

Eckhart, who is experiencing a bit of a resurgence of late, plays off Hanks’ well as Skiles. This film desperately needed levity, and it’s what Eckhart provides. He has some sharp comedic timing, and he’s the voice of reassurance for Sullenberger when things begin to heat up. Outside of the two leads, everyone else plays their part, and in a movie like this, the smaller roles need believability.

Eastwood keeps the film brisk with a runtime that barely exceeds 90 minutes, and in today’s climate, that’s no small task. While he mainly relies on Hanks and Eckhart to make the post-landing scenes pop, the longtime director rolls up his sleeves and delivers during the landing sequences. As the plane is descending from the sky, Eastwood ramps up the tension and cuts effectively between the concerned cabin and the collected cockpit. The plane hitting the water is nicely handled through the CG. But, it’s the exiting of the plane and the first-responders’ efforts where Eastwood really grips you.

In those moments, the stakes are so obviously high, and everything moves along with urgency, but it’s so rehearsed and professional in its execution. The brave responders get everyone to safety, while the lauded crew of the aircraft ensure everyone gets off the sinking plane in orderly fashion. It’s telling that Sullenberger is one of the last people off the plane.

Eastwood’s film doesn’t go without a few bumps – the director has always enjoyed pressing his themes firmly and openly, and here, it can be a little jarring and on the nose to see Sully watching a CG plane hit a building in New York with the music ratcheted up as representation of his wandering imagination. It’s in those moments where you wish Eastwood would have relied less on craft and more on Hanks – who nary hits a misstep when projecting the weight on Sully’s shoulders – to convey the theme.

All in all, Sully is an achievement for Hanks and another reminder that even at 86, Eastwood is still one of America’s more consistent directors. The film is a testament to the importance of hard work, cool heads and human experience in an ever-changing technological world. Taking on the rising tech tide can seem a little “get off my lawn”-y when handled poorly, but Eastwood powers that message to a safe landing.

The film is also a confirmation for anyone who needed it as to the true and unabashed heroism Sullenberger displayed on that cold January morning. Thankfully, the film does its subject justice.

Cory Woodroof is a journalist and film critic based in Nashville, Tennessee. He has written for Lumination Network (Lipscomb University's student news service), the Nashville Scene, the Country Music Association's 2012 CMA Fest blog, Brentwood Home Page and other publications. He's a huge fan of catching the previews before a movie and the leading Space Jam expert in the Southeast.

2 thoughts on “In Clint Eastwood’s engrossing “Sully,” earnest heroism hits turbulence

  1. I haven’t seen this yet, and have read mixed reviews. To be honest, I am not a huge fan of Tom Hanks, at least not since ‘Big’. The best thing about this film is that it could be a fitting tribute to the actions of a brave man during a real event. If it succeeds in that, then it is worth watching.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. My only real complaint with Sully is that it sets up a straw man argument. Since there is never any context for why O’Malley and his panel seem so gung ho to take Sully down, it always feels like the movie is inventing conflict where none existed. This may have been genuine, or it may have genuinely been Sully’s perspective, but I found it very hard to buy into this tension since we all know the outcome. I think Eastwood has long been interested in exploring the nature of heroism and saw this as a good vehicle to do so. But he missed crossing a pretty big T and that hurt.

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