Director: Clint Eastwood
By Rhys Tarling
Sully is as modest and simple affair as the titular character himself, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, the real life pilot who was hailed as a hero after landing his damaged airliner on the Hudson River – a feat which saved all 155 passengers and crewmen.
On a dramatic level the story leaves something to be desired: Sully saved everyone onboard due to sheer competence and experience and there isn’t much more to it than that, despite some lip service to larger stakes. But as a beautifully filmed testament to our collective ability to help and care for each other when random disaster strikes? It 100 percent works. Consider a moment where an emergency crewman wraps a blanket around a shivering passenger who is nearly in tears at the idea that he could have died. The crewman gruffly and undramatically responds with “nobody is going to die today.” There are a million ways in which this exchange could come off as schmaltzy, but director Clint Eastwood’s workmanlike direction – which was ill-suited to his previous feature American Sniper – allows this scene to be understatedly lovely. It’s a refreshingly uncynical approach.
Tom Hanks is Captain Sullenberger and projects both steadiness and humility. With Father Christmas snowy hair and middle aged fat, there’s a sense that they’ve gone to great lengths to make this guy as fundamentally Hollywood likeable as possible (and it’s Tom Hanks, a paragon of grandfatherly decency). But a simplistic statement like that would overlook the great work he does here. He conveys Sullenberger’s fearful bewilderment at the amount of attention he’s suddenly subjected to, both positive and negative, his doubts, and ultimately, his assurance and pride that he feels for his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). He convincingly portrays a complete journey with a slight screenplay that doesn’t quite support it. He casts a quiet spell.
Aaron Eckhart supplies the good-natured ribbing and proves to be a delightful contrast to the earnest Captain Sully. But like Tom Hanks, Eckhart projects a workingman’s decency, albeit the more laid-back and jokey kind.
The actors portraying the passengers on the ill-fated airliner, while only given seconds, do everything with those seconds and sell the hell out of the fear, panic, and giddy relief one would feel at surviving an ordeal such as that.
But as good as those actors are at selling the fear, they’re merely supplemental to the awe-inspiring work Clint Eastwood does. Eastwood forgoes giving us the goods at first, allowing us to get to know the characters and settling into the easy rhythm of the film, so by the time the plane is in takeoff mode with an engine wail that’s only just louder than it should be, your palms are sweaty. The setup is just damn good. The disaster sequence was filmed with brand new ALEXA IMAX 65mm cameras. If you’re not quite sure why that’s important, just know that it fully captures the scope and terror of a falling and compromised plane with crystal clear clarity. The sequence is revisited a few times from a different point of view, and though we are intellectually aware of the outcome every time, the tension remains potent. It’s a superb combination of old fashioned intelligent storytelling and a thrilling demonstration of new film technology.
Running at an efficient 95 minutes, Sully is an antidote to the recent assault of lumbering and cynical Hollywood blockbusters. The terrific direction by Clint Eastwood and an empathetic turn by Tom Hanks transcends the limitations of a slight screenplay. Catch this one in IMAX.