Director Clint Eastwood
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Jamey Sheridan
Released 2nd December 2016
After a run of frankly disappointing films – Jersey Boys and J Edgar for two – it looked like Clint Eastwood was either winding down or losing his touch. But he’s back again this week, with yet another true story and one that most of us will remember. And, if we don’t, we’ll certainly recognise the photographs that whizzed around the world on one freezing January day in New York in 2009.
Sully is the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot at the controls of a flight out of La Guardia when a bird strike caused both engines to fail catastrophically. Instead of aiming for a nearby airport, he landed the plane on the Hudson River and the event was instantly dubbed The Miracle On The Hudson. Remarkably, it was an action that saved the lives of all 155 people on the plane. We know all this right from the start. So how does Eastwood go about making a film where everybody knows the ending and yet still give it some tension and sense of expectation?
Part of his solution is to take a leaf out of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 book, another story where the audience know the ending. Like Howard, Eastwood gives us what we know, but shows it from a different perspective, insights we didn’t know about or could ever have imagined. In the case of Sully, you get two. Those photographs at the time – and, indeed, the film’s own poster – make the crash look smooth and easy. They’re almost sanitised. The reality was anything but. We’re shown the event through the pilots’ eyes and from the point of view of the passengers. Just to reinforce that, there’s a few individual passengers we’re allowed to identify with, although at best they’re sketchy. But, despite knowing the outcome, there’s definitely some tension.
And then we’re shown the landing all over again, but in a totally different context. While Sully and his first officer, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), listen to the recording of the events of that day – this takes place at the subsequent hearing – they re-live the landing all over again and we’re taken with them. This time it’s a harder watch, with more detail. The freezing water gushes into the plane, Sully makes sure everybody gets out safely, handing out clothes to keep them warm, and there’s the just audible sound from the main cabin that penetrates the cabin door. The stewardesses are yelling in unison “heads down, stay down” over and over again. The impact of the plane on the water doesn’t lose anything second time around. If anything, it gains.
It isn’t all about the landing. There’s the side that most people weren’t even aware of when it was happening, the inquiry to determine what happened, a row of hard faced bureaucrats who seem hell bent on proving Sully did the wrong thing. And the prospect of being found culpable would mean him losing everything, which is the most frightening thing of all for him. For all their computer simulations, the panel seem to have completely ignored the human element. That Sully is a born pilot, an instinctive natural with over 40 years’ experience, including military aircraft, so the chances of him panicking or making the wrong call are slim. Which makes their desire to bring him down a puzzle that’s never fully resolved.
Hanks is a good choice in the role. He’s not quite on Captain Phillips form, but he captures the essence of the private man who plays it straight but is actually something of a swan underneath that calm exterior. Eckhart is great as his right hand man, a more humorous counterbalance to Sully, and if there’s an award for the Best Moustache In A Supporting Role, it has his name on it.
It’s a solid, sincere movie and it’s clear a great deal of research has gone into it, especially on the technical side. Following the footsteps of Paul Greengrass and his magnificent United 93, Eastwood has included a number of people in the film who were actually involved in the events of that day in 2009. And Sully himself played an active role in preparing the script. Ultimately, the focus is very much on the two pilots and what happened in the air and on the water that day. As one of the first responders says to a passenger he’s just fished out of the water, “Nobody dies today”. And that’s not a spoiler.
Sully is released in cinemas on Friday, 2 December and was reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 1 December.