Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Todd Komarnicki
In his work Clint Eastwood has shown great admiration for the everyday hero, the ones who are motivated not by glory but by duty and who go beyond what is expected of them. In his last feature, American Sniper, he dramatized the life of a Navy SEAL who served four tours abroad and amassed the greatest body count of any marksman in U.S. military history but was traumatised not by the lives he claimed but by the lives he failed to save. Here he tells the tale of a figure who performs an extraordinary feat and is then similarly haunted by how badly it all could have gone if things had happened only slightly differently. Like Chris Kyle, Sully rejects the label of ‘hero’, insisting that he was simply doing his job, as was everyone else involved in the landing and rescue that took place. In Captain Sully Eastwood has found a champion for the traits he admires (professionalism, selflessness and humility) and he uses this film to celebrate those qualities.
On January 15 2009 Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) stunned the world when, upon losing both engines on his plane immediately after take off, made an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Later, after Sully has been hailed as a hero by the world, an inquiry is made looking into his actions. When preliminary data reveals that the port engine may have still been active, and thus would have allowed the plane to reach either of the two nearby airports, Sully’s judgement is brought into question. Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully’s co-pilot, staunchly defends his colleague’s actions every step of the way as the committee led by Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) contend that Sully’s actions may very well have placed over a hundred people’s lives needlessly at risk. Also lending support to Sully through this inquisition is his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney). Despite what the data and findings seem to suggest, Sully maintains that, after 40 years of flying airliners, every instinct in his body told him that landing in the Hudson was the only option available to him and seeks to prove that.
Tom Hanks is the natural choice for the role of a heroic everyman and delivers a worthy performance. The film’s version of Sully is plain-spoken, straightforward, and is able to maintain a calm composure at the critical moment of the story. Hanks plays him with conviction and dignity as a man who takes immense pride in his work and who treats the responsibility of his job with the seriousness that it deserves. When his decision is brought into question, he conveys his clear disapproval at the Safety Board’s reliance on preliminary data and computerised simulations over his decades of experience and highly-practiced instinct. Eastwood places much emphasis on the critical 208 seconds when Sully and Skiles had to assess what exactly had happened and how to respond with the lives of 155 people at stake. No type of training or simulation, Eastwood concludes, can ever account or compensate for human instinct, especially that of a veteran pilot with a long and distinguished career.
The film’s weakness is that, upon deciding that it couldn’t build its drama around an event where the audience already knew the happy outcome, tries to build its drama around the inquiry that took place afterwards instead. The central conflict thus ends up being pretty black and white with the suits of the NTSB taking a clearly antagonistic role against the idealistically heroic Captain Sully. It’s compelling, to be sure, but it doesn’t make for great drama. A point the film does convey very well is how the Miracle on the Hudson was not the accomplishment of one man but rather of everyone involved doing their jobs at the moment when it mattered most. We see the incident from many different perspectives: the co-pilot, the stewardesses, the passengers, the airline control, the coastguard, and through these varying viewpoints we see the truly miraculous part of this astonishing episode. In their moment of peril, a situation that no airline had ever anticipated before, everyone did exactly what they had to do and they all got out safely in the 24-minute rescue that followed.
Sully is an idealistic film, overly so at some points. The characters that the film wants us to like, like the passengers for instance, are a little too benevolent to come across as real people. Some of the admirations that Sully receives are also a little too on-the-nose, as with the taxi driver who saw Sully as a symbol of hope against all the other bad stuff that happened in the past few months (which he was considerate enough to list). Still, it would be difficult not to be idealistic when faced with such an extraordinary story about such an ordinary man. The film is a celebration of the men and women who perform heroic feats every day in the course of doing their jobs. Sully contemplates at one point how, after such a long and successful career, this is the flight that the world would judge him for, as if 40 years of safely transporting millions of people all over the world should count for nothing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t see himself as a hero, he is a simply a man who did his duty just like he’s always done. Sully did his job, and so have Eastwood and Hanks by making a decent film that succeeds in showcasing exactly what this story means to them.