The title of Clint Eastwood’s latest, Sully, works as a two-edged nod to both titular hero and what the National Transportation Safety Board wanted to do to his reputation. There isn’t an American alive who hasn’t heard of Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles’s (Aaron Eckhart) unscheduled landing of a plane in the Hudson river one chilly January afternoon. For a film with a guaranteed happy ending, it’s amazing how much suspense Eastwood is able to mine.
Eastwood’s a guy whose off-screen persona has been called into question after a dialogue with an empty chair was compounded by talk of political correctness being the byproduct of a “pussy generation.” It’s with pleasure that one finds Sully to be as much a sock on the nose that big government insists on sticking where it doesn’t belong as American Sniper was a negative appraisal of the American military.
If Eastwood strove to paint Chris Kyle as a hunter who became the target, there’s no damage control needed when it comes to depicting the life of this American hero. Other than his delivery adding a few extra minutes to the running time, one wonders what Jimmy Stewart might have done with the character. No actor currently at work is better suited to play a feather in the hat of courage than Tom Hanks, and it’s been ages since a director put his congeniality to the test like Eastwood.
The Sully we first meet is a man trapped in a nightmare, his eyes but chalky pinpricks of light emerging from a blackened sleep, his body a smoldering rock in the sauna, a suffering soul whose sweat radiates steam. The entire populace of New York eager to act as character witnesses, but Sully’s sack time is splinterized by nightmares of demonization at the hands of the media.
If Hereafter opened on real-life tragedy, Sully commences with a huge “what if?” as the captain, undergoing a form of pilot PTSD, dreams what might have happened had a decision to reroute to Laguardia ended in disaster. It’s a question that haunts our hero and drives what Harry Callahan would have called “the pencil-pushing sons-of-bitches” at the NTSB.
At 96 minutes, this could be Eastwood’s shortest picture. Shot entirely in IMAX, the director, known for bringing ’em in ahead of schedule and under-budget, probably adjusted the running time to compensate for the added expense of filming in the high resolution format. That’s not to say that a few of the more melodramatic subplots couldn’t have stood a little shearing.
Sully comes closest to an old school Irwin Allen disaster flick with the introduction of a father and his two sons — running late and desperate to make a golf outing — who sweet talk a flight attendant into assigning them the last three seats. Introduced as comic relief, the trio are later called upon to add pathos when one of the boys gets separated from the pack. And while it might not have saved but a few seconds, a verbal reference to 9/11 — particularly in light of several dream sequences that involve planes colliding with buildings — was redundant at best.
Matthew also had his share of difficulty with the Laura Linney character.
Eastwood has spent much of his illustrious career as a filmmaker bucking the system, both on and off screen. With that determination comes a stiff-necked sense of integrity that permeates his work. Mike Pence bob and dye-job notwithstanding, Hanks’s Sullenberger is by far Eastwood’s most untarnished standard-bearer to date. Not even Nelson Mandela came off looking this good.
One thing we both agree on: spend the extra few bucks needed to see it in IMAX.
— Scott Marks
I’ll start where Scott ends: why spend the extra few bucks needed to see it in IMAX? The easy answer is: because it was filmed with IMAX cameras, and Eastwood is not a director who plays around with fancy tech for fancy tech’s sake. And why film it in IMAX? It’s a question I found myself asking more than once after the (admittedly gripping) opening flight scene. Gosh, all that extra effort for a lot of conference room interiors, hotel room interiors, home interiors, bar interiors... But the answer came soon enough, starting with Sully’s flashback to the first time he takes control of an airplane. (As with his other flashbacks, it’s almost comically long, coming as it does in the middle of a TV interview with Katie Couric. The point bangs home when we return to the present day: none of this after-the-fact, on-the-ground fuss and fury matters, not really. What matters is what happened up there: when Sully first took flight, when Sully landed a sputtering fighter jet, when Sully skidded a massive metal cylinder across the surface of the Hudson River.) IMAX lets Eastwood give the viewer a phenomenal sense of scale — the plane, the city, the river, the ferries — as well as a sense of bodies in space. I can’t think of another film that’s made me feel flight so effectively, from the floating of a single-prop to the skidding of a smoking fighter jet to the hurtling of a commercial airliner as it sinks toward earth. Scott mentioned that we know from life how things wind up, and yet we still feel suspense. I’ll go him one better: even after the film showed us the successful water landing, I still found myself tensing in my seat when the story served it up again. The plane! Is going! To hit! The water! (The massive wave of IMAX sound undoubtedly helped as well.)
Working back: Sully is indeed an untarnished standard-bearer: Eastwood’s dream American affirming Eastwood’s dream America. The one where heroism means just doing your job and doing it well, whether you’re a crackerjack pilot, his cool-headed co-pilot, a veteran flight attendant, a quick-thinking air-traffic controller, an unflappable ferryman, or even a caring union rep. The only bad guys are the ones who seek to discount such heroism, to search for someone to blame while they swarm to protect the bottom line. Put another way: The airline and New York City’s government and services come out of this film looking great; the Feds, not so much. You can practically hear the old Republican railing against “those meddling bean counters in Washington” who “fear the greatness of the American individual.” And while he’s too much of a pro to include much in the way of on-point speechmaking, he can’t help but make one of those Feds do a little repentant gushing toward the end. Still, he earns it.
What he doesn’t earn is any sympathy for his use of Laura Linney as Sully’s stuck-at-home wife. She exists to react in disbelief and to fret for our hero. And also to up the emotional ante by complaining about unpaid bills to a husband facing a Government Inquisition, and by reminding Sully that one of the lives he saved was her beloved husband’s. In a less well-executed film, it might not have bugged me. Here, it stuck out as a naked play for emotion, and maybe a way to pad the skimpy runtime.
Eastwood did better with the relationship between Sully and his co-pilot Jerry Skiles. Hanks and Eckhart are both deeply rattled, but both professional enough to put on a game face for the opposition. And Eckhart manages the additional task of playing a man standing beside a hero: This guy was just my co-worker, and now he’s a giant, and what’s more, he deserves to be. And it’s my job to defend him. A complicated business; happily, he’s up to the task.
Scott’s giving this one four stars. I probably would have gone with three, on the grounds that the padding showed and the emotional grabs were unnecessary. But still, a good story, well told.
— Matthew Lickona