Coming from a pretty well off family that loves to travel, I can say that I have been flying for a rather large part of my life. Riding on an airplane is about at natural to me as a road trip, so it takes a lot for me to become anxious when witnessing a disastrous flight on the screen. The heartbreaking flight in United 93 comes to mind, as does the harrowing crash at the beginning of Cast Away (another film featuring Hanks). Sully is a film that could be featured on that list.
Sully, based upon the true story of the Miracle on the Hudson, where a flight of 155 passengers landed in the Hudson River miraculously without a death toll, and its aftermath, concocts a surprising amount of tension out of its brief, simple premise. The flight itself is obviously very tense, but there is a quiet intensity that rings through the entire film, especially during the scenes where Hanks’ portrayal of senior pilot Sully Sullenberger is standing alone, tormented by 9/11-inspired visions of airplanes crashing into the New York City skyline.
That is thanks to the power of Hanks’ performance. Nobody else in Hollywood could have given this role just the right amount of workmanlike, warm-blooded American values that Hanks does, and without turning the character into a bore. There’s a reason filmmakers go to him to play world-weary, morally astute, soft-spoken ralliers of the value in honesty and a good day’s work; he gives them humanity. His performance is sympathetic, but without yearning for sympathy. Sully is as professional as people get, never letting the newfound love and adoration from the public faze him in the slightest, even when greeted with random hugs and kisses from complete strangers while walking down the streets of New York. When a hotel manager impulsively hugs the soaking wet Sully, his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), says to him, “You just got hugged by a complete stranger.” Sully then asks to get his uniform dry-cleaned.
One may be mistaken that the main event of Sully is the crash itself, but that is hardly the case. As I know now, that only took 208 seconds and the rescue only took 24 minutes, and the real conflict of Sully isn’t much of a conflict at all. The supposed “antagonists,” though I never saw them as such, just people trying to do their jobs, of this film are the bureaucrats of the National Transportation Safety Board questioning and investigating Sully’s decisions during the crash, and the conflict is their investigation. They believe Sully could have made it to the airport, and, in the act of forcibly landing the plane in the Hudson River, he endangered everyone on board the flight. Between the flashbacks to the crash and rescue, there are plenty of scenes displaying hearings and meetings and confrontations between Sully Sullenberger and the board of the NTSB, yet they are never boring. Clint Eastwood’s slick, focused direction and a smart script from Todd Komarnicki make even the scenes full of discussion over flight simulations, low altitudes, insurance, and Sully repeating the term “forced water landing” nearly as compelling as the scenes where he actually demonstrates it.
The scenes displaying the crash are the black sheep of a film that is, for the most part, relatively quiet. The curdling sound of the plane crashing down into the freezing cold water of the Hudson River is something that will make you cringe and plug your ears, as well as stay with you after the credits have rolled. The rest of the film is of political talk and investigation, and the humorous, engaging banter between Sully and Skiles. When the film ends, you are satisfied. It is a movie about a man justifying his ability to do his job; so the silence is rather fitting.
3 out of 5