A most unusually structured mainstream Hollywood effort, Clint Eastwood’s Sully is more than you’d expect from a based-on-a-true-miracle movie. It has the requisite stunningly realized and vividly recreated central reenactment of an amazing real-life event, in this case Captain Sully’s emergency water landing of a US Airways jet in New York City’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009. But Eastwood’s film isn’t interested in easy heroism. It’s about process, about skilled people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities and about the constant churning reliving of a traumatic event in its swirling aftermath. This is a movie that knows just because the outcome was a success – the reason the story is so memorable in the first place is not simply that a jet went down, but that every single passenger and crew member lived – doesn’t make the event any less rattling. And just because we know the outcome doesn’t make it any less harrowing.
The movie knows we know what happened and doesn’t take any steps to hide it. Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay begins in a nightmare, as Sully (Tom Hanks) awakes the morning after the miracle having dreamt it had gone wrong and they all went down in flames. A news report is hammering away with the real ending: all survived. This is a movie about what happened that day, told from a variety of angles, remembrances, and reenactments. Eventually the movie arrives at its centerpiece: a lengthy, involving, grippingly detail-oriented view of the event from boarding to takeoff to sudden bird strikes mere moments later that leave both engines useless and then a long, scary descent past the city and into the river. But first we see Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board (whose members include Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn). They’re forced to tell their story, explain why they couldn’t make it safely back to a runway. This is a movie not about bold men taking decisive heroic action. It’s about instinct, knowledge, training, and group efforts. It’s about doing the job.
Circling the main event, Sully’s present tense follows the man recovering. We see the crash in dream, flashback, news coverage, interviews, interrogations, flight recordings, and simulations. It’s a sturdy evocation of a man whose mind continually, inevitably returns again and again to relive his trauma by personal choice and public need. He’s still in shock, stuck in a hotel waiting for the board’s investigation to complete so he can get back in the air. Meanwhile, strangers awed by his noteworthy feat stop to shake his hand or give him a hug, Katie Couric and David Letterman want him on their shows, and his wife (Laura Linney) calls to check up on him. But none of this interrupts his mind as he wonders if he did all he could. Did he make the right decisions? Could this have all been avoided? The answer is yes and no. He behaved perfectly under pressure, and accidents happen. But his work ethic is such that he simply can’t square the heroic image in public with his humble workaday private self. He’s just one man, who happened to have the right training and the right experience to allow him to make the right calls quickly and under pressure. He just wanted to make sure everyone was safe.
Eastwood lingers on this ordinary professionalism, using Hanks’ subtle humility and aw-shucks low-key Americana persona to great effect. Hanks projects a confident, compassionate, fatherly presence. It’s a strong, honest, hardworking masculinity that’s not bravado, but simply routine and behavioral. He’s warm and earnest, but not arrogant or aggressive. He’s simply nice. It’s a perfect part of the film’s portrait of process that reveals the everyday bravery of people who have skills, knowledge, expertise, empathy, and a moral sense of duty. (And like Eastwood’s other recent films – J. Edgar, Jersey Boys, American Sniper – it’s interested in the effects public feats have on private lives.) Sully is a movie that finds different perspectives beyond the leading man: the steady co-pilot, the efficient flight attendants, the alert traffic controller, the responsive passengers, the confident coast guard and quick-thinking ferry boat captains who race to the scene. Everyone plays an important part and living through it marks all. A Hawksian vision of humanity at its best and most cooperative, it’s a quietly moving movie about people in peril not succumbing to selfish panic, but taking one step at a time to safety. The film is understated, humane, warm, even softly funny, recognizing the normality of the men and women who experienced something that doesn’t normally succeed. The lead of the investigation eventually admits it’s the first time he’s listened to a black box while sitting next to the pilots.
Shot in bright and crisp digital full-frame IMAX by cinematographer Tom Stern, the movie’s most overwhelming when it puts the audience in the plane as it dives – at once terrifyingly fast and agonizingly slow – to the river. Eastwood increases the panic by tracing the plane’s arc past skyscrapers and skyline, even coming close to a bridge. The words 9/11 are never spoken in the film, but hang over the proceedings, never more so than in a moving passage during the centerpiece sequence that cuts to New Yorkers catching sight of the low-flying jet, the horror and surprise registering on their faces with a clear “oh, no, not again” feeling. It’s done largely silently, adding to the haunting reminder of how badly this could have ended. As the movie continues in its repetitions, finding new viewpoints from and techniques through which to view and explain the miracle, Eastwood lets the details accrue. Though it opens by reminding us of the outcome and then lets us see the events in so many ways so many times, it retains its suspense and its fascination the whole way through. It has the skill to show us an amazing feat, and the perspective to know the outcome was astounding through nothing more than capable people committed to doing the best they could with the circumstances given to them.