Sully is a compelling but stressful hour-and-thirty-six minutes of cinema. Based in part on the memoir penned by Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, “Highest Duty,” it depicts the harrowing experience of US Airways flight 1549 on January 15, 2009, a flight that ended with what’s now remembered as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
Director Clint Eastwood’s re-creation of the experience itself in the film could be a study in crafting tension and suspense in film without unnecessary melodrama.
But Sully is just as effective in depicting the character-driven moments that went unseen at the time. Tom Hanks carries those moments, balancing the film’s methodical approach to the events and details with conviction and emotional weight.
What’s it about
As a film, Sully does not progress chronologically. Rather, it follows the emotional roller coaster that Captain Sullenberger (Hanks) experiences as he and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiiles (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) are questioned regarding their actions during the crisis by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Over and over again, the members of the board question Sully’s decision to land the plane in the Hudson River. Their computer data contradicts what Sully and Jeff believed at the time, that the plane did not, in fact, lose both its engines, and that they could have made it back to LaGuardia Airport.
Outwardly, Sully maintains his belief in what his instincts told him was happening and what they told him to do. They could not make it back — he made the only choice available to them.
But away from the doubting glances of the board and all the media attention, the fear that there might have been another way manifests itself. It’s only to his wife, Lorrie (Laura Linney), that Sully reveals those doubts, the anxiety that keeps from sleeping peacefully.
Did his choice in those fleeting moments put lives in danger needlessly, rather than save them? That question haunts him, along with the possibility that his choices may jeopardize his career and his family’s future.
Folks who get nervous when flying please take note. Sully is so well crafted in terms of the scenes that re-create the “Miracle on the Hudson” from start to finish are very likely to evoke air travel anxiety.
Especially when experienced in IMAX (the film was shot with IMAX cameras), even the incident-free take-off of flight 1549 in the film will likely bring about sensations like that involuntary tightening of the stomach muscles that some feel on planes when the craft first leaves the ground. It’s that convincing.
Add to that “normal” anxiety the knowledge viewers have going into the movie, that something will go wrong, and you have a film experience rife with genuine tension. Eastwood and the production in Sully put audiences in a seat on that plane, and it’s a powerful experience.
To truly appreciate just how accurate the representation of the events is in Sully, audiences should stay for the credits. Photos taken on the Hudson River that day of the rescue efforts and the plane in the water are the best evidence possible to the effort in this production to “get it right.”
A compelling, credible character portrait
Balancing all that effort into the technical aspects of Sully is a truly memorable performance from Tom Hanks as Captain Sullenberger.
Yes, that’s saying a lot, considering the memorable work Hanks has delivered over decades in Hollywood. But the film demands the juggling of a great deal of conflicting emotions. It also asks that Hanks effectively convey a decision-making process that in mere seconds saved more than a hundred lives.
Hanks projects a great deal of Sully’s emotions through his eyes. During the crisis, they exude stress, but also calm intensity, calculation, and confidence. During the aftermath, they show fear and anxiety almost to the point of panic.
In terms of physicality, it’s an understated performance for Hanks. But through his eyes he makes you believe that beneath Sully’s reserved exterior all those emotions are roiling.
The supporting players here are strong, as well. Aside from Hanks, Eckhart gets the most screen time. His portrayal of the personable and funny Skiles helps to lighten things during particularly tense moments.
Linney’s role is, unfortunately, very limited, but understandably so, considering the script’s tight focus. Nevertheless, she’s solid in her relatively few moments on screen as Sully’s only real outlet for his fears and doubts.
For fans of the principals as well as anyone with an interest in this true-life positive story, Sully is a must-see film. See it in theaters — all the visual power and immersive qualities of the IMAX camera work will surely be lost on all but the largest of TV screens.
Don’t let Eastwood’s presence in the directorial chair turn you away, either. Yes, his other directorial efforts, while compelling, are undeniably long, drawn-out affairs.
Not so with Sully. At a lean 96 minutes, the film stays on point and focused the very real drama surrounding the event and those involved.
Plus, in the end, it’s a positive story that came out of a difficult period in our recent history. It’s a story highlighting inspiring courage and professionalism without saccharine or artifice.
Let’s face it. Stories crafted in that manner are few and far between in big Hollywood films these days.
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Running Time: 96 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.