‘Sully’ movie review: ‘Taut, straightforward’ drama features Clint Eastwood’s latest all-American hero
When considering Sully, Clint Eastwood’s taut, straightforward account of heroism on trial, it helps to remember that the title character’s name works as both noun and verb. And one can see how Eastwood was drawn to both meanings. The noun, of course, is the nickname of airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger, who saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew on January 15, 2009, by pulling off a daring water landing after a flock of birds took out both engines of his US Airways flight minutes after it took off from New York’s LaGuardia airport.
The Sully depicted here is, like many Eastwood heroes, made of uniquely American clay; a sturdy, rigorous material that the director, who recently called today’s youngins, “the pussy generation,” is finding in short supply. He goes resolutely, yet humanely, about his business, in this case, the business of determining, and then proving afterwards, that the only way to save all passengers and crew on Flight 1549 was to forgo various local runway options and ditch the plane in the Hudson River.
His largest bouts of self-doubt come when confronted with newfangled, computer-simulated evidence that he could have returned safely to either LaGuardia or New Jersey’s Teterboro airport. Of course, no computer is going to tell Sully he was wrong because no computer can simulate American can-do, know-how, and gumption. (Did I leave out any of your grandfather’s favorite clichés?)
The ‘noble American’
Yet it’s sully the verb that provides the film’s dramatic engine and, one can guess, was Eastwood’s emotional entry into the story. Most of Sully is concerned with the post-crash investigation, where a gallery of humorless, almost vengeful National Transportation Safety Board functionaries (led by a smarmy Mike O’Malley) execute their sole charge of discrediting Sully’s life-saving efforts.
For Eastwood, the story of a noble and decent American threatened with dishonor by a heartless government speaks to his famously conservative political leanings. Indeed, the 86-year old director seems invested and energized by this material (based on Sullenberger’s memoir), maybe even more so than 2014’s American Sniper. And he’s given us a purposeful argument in favor of a dying breed: the durable, honorable American male.
‘Half the film’ without Tom Hanks
Analogous to his traditional “get in, get out” shooting style, the movie has almost no fat and is cut with an eye for tension and unease by Blu Murray, replacing Eastwood’s longtime editor, Joel Cox. (It also features a very effective sound mix; aggressive, evocative and disturbing.) Sully is, in fact, Eastwood’s shortest film as director, as blunt an instrument as he’s ever created.
Though effectively suffused with palpable physicality and simmering doubt, Sully would be half the film without Tom Hanks in the title role. In the superhero era, Hanks really is the last major movie star whose persona, on and off screen, is one of genuine, unforced decency.
Hollywood used to crank out these types (James Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper). Now we have Hanks, who’s too upstanding a screen presence for us to imagine Sully at fault, even if Eastwood and longtime DP Tom Stern (shooting partially in clean, gorgeous IMAX) don’t spare the close-ups of Sully’s worried brow. He is, we’re convinced at the start, the blameless hero acknowledged by history.
However, we do question whether the pressures of a simple man being hailed a hero will overwhelm him and what long-term emotional consequences the Miracle on the Hudson, as it came to be known, may have. The arresting opening scene, repeated later, where Sully envisions a more tragic end to US Airways Flight 1549 speaks to Sully’s post-traumatic distress.
One-dimensional supporting cast
Todd Komarnicki’s script is lean to a fault, but is given to passages of overly constructed and thematically unsubtle dialogue. He also gives Sully two characters whose only purpose is to give him someone to whom he can articulate his fears. Sully’s co-pilot during the fateful flight is the unwaveringly allegiant Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), whose dark brown mustache is a cross-generational match to Sully’s silver cookie duster, suggesting in both men a ’70s-era sense of machismo.
Sully’s wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), fares worse. She and her husband never share the screen together as Lorraine is reduced to phoning Sully and allowing him to remind us he’s worried and he loves his family.
‘Modest and effective’ filmmaking
Seeing Tom Hanks, the quintessential middle-aged American Everyman star in a film directed by the quintessential American cowboy, one wishes they’d have collaborated earlier. But what we get is more than satisfactory, as Eastwood’s simplicity and Hanks’s authenticity deliver diamond-hard notes of quiet emotional clarity, as when Sully is told that all 154 other passengers and crew are confirmed to have survived.
Shots of anonymous skyscraper-dwellers rising slowly and slack-jawed from their office chairs as Flight 1549 makes its final descent traffics in visions of 9/11. But here they feel not only earned but accurate. Later, one character even notes, “it’s been a while since New York had news this good. Especially with an airplane in it.”
Sully is modest and effective, which might strike some as not big enough, as if we’re so inundated with summertime extravaganzas that the story of a real life hero needs to be inflated with volumes of special effects, snarky modern dialogue, and outsized drama. It is also, in a sense, the flipside of Robert Zemeckis’ 2012 drama Flight, a fine effort that is nonetheless mainstream and melodramatic, something Sully takes great pains to avoid.
And thank goodness Eastwood, like the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, chose to go in a surprising direction. Consider this film Eastwood’s defense of Chesley Sullenberger against charges that he acted improperly; one that also argues that America could stand to increase its stock of men of modest virtue.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Screenplay: Todd Komarnicki.
From Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow’s book Highest Duty.
Cast: Tom Hanks. Laura Linney. Aaron Eckhart. Mike O’Malley. Jamey Sheridan. Anna Gunn. Blake Jones. Molly Bernard. Chris Bauer. Sam Huntington.
Christopher Curry. Valerie Mahaffey. Molly Hagan. Autumn Reeser. Michael Rapaport. Jerry Ferrara. Jeremy Luke. Bernardo Badillo. Grant Roberts. Cooper Thornton. Patch Darragh.
Cameo: Katie Couric.
Sully movie cast info via the IMDb.
Image of Tom Hanks as pilot Chesley Sullenberger in Clint Eastwood’s Sully movie: Warner Bros.