A Sullied Reputation

It’s a given that when you think you know everything about a story, you simply don’t. Unless you’ve lived it yourself, you’re on the outside looking in, and you miss much about the experience. One of the powers of film, though, is it lets you vicariously experience what a character goes through in a well-done true life story. That’s the accomplishment of Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully.

There was a huge amount of coverage about the “Miracle on the Hudson” when an Airbus A-320 with 155 passengers and crew on board was successfully landed on the Hudson River after both of its engines were taken out by bird strikes. It’s the kind of scenario that ends in tragedy, but Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, assisted by First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, pulled off an incredible maneuver to safely bring the plane down, and first responders and ferry boat captains sprang into action immediately so all were saved.

Director/Producer Eastwood, assisted by screenwriter Todd Komarnicki working from Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty,” focuses on the fallout of the event, beginning with a nightmare scenario of what could easily have happened. Following the water landing, Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are stuck in New York City while the NTSB does its investigation into the incident. Sully can only reach out to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) by phone. The airline wants Sully and the crew to do publicity – Eastwood recreates interviews with Katie Couric and David Letterman – but at the same time the NTSB informs them that computer simulations say they didn’t have to ditch in the river. They could have made it back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. So while the public is hailing him a hero, Sully is looking at the possibility of being found negligent by the investigation, which will mean the ruin of his career and life.

It’s strange to think that this is the first collaboration between Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks, but it was worth the wait. Hanks is the perfect choice to play Sully, not just because with his hair dyed white he bears a certain resemblance to the Captain. Hanks can present emotional depth and turmoil without moving hardly a muscle, yet at the same time he presents rock-like confidence. Eckhart’s interplay with him is nuanced and realistic. It’s a pleasure to see two fine actors give memorable performances marked by restraint.

Laura Linney has the challenge of presenting her character’s relationship with her husband without them actually being in the same frame once during the film. However, she pulls it off. The movie underlines that, regardless of the incredible nature of the events on that day, the lives of the Sullenbergers had to go on, and what seemed a great thing meant hardship for them. As the triumvirate of NTSB investigators, Eastwood has cast Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, and Anna Gunn.

What’s interesting, though, is the appearance by actual participants in the events. The captain of the first ferry boat to reach the passengers, Vincent Lombardi, plays himself in the film, as do reporters Bobby Cuza and Katie Couric. During the credits, you also get to see a reunion of the passengers with the Sullenbergers.

The recreation of the events, and the other scenarios that could have happened if Sully had made different choices, are enthralling. Eastwood spaces out the story of the events throughout the film which actually adds clarity to the story. You have time to understand everything that is going on.

I saw Sully on the afternoon of September 11th. That anniversary received an acknowledgement in the course of the movie, when a character mentions how wonderful it is to have a positive story in New York City that involves an airplane. At just under 100 minutes, this is Eastwood’s shortest movie, but every single frame is used effectively. If you want to see a thrilling, uplifting movie, go see Sully.

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