SULLY (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13

(for some peril and brief strong language)
Released: September 9, 2016
Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan

With passenger airlines being the safest way to travel, statistically speaking, it’s easy to take for granted the people who fly us around to our final destinations.

After Sully, you won’t.

Director Clint Eastwood’s harrowing re-creation of “The Miracle On The Hudson” (when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely crash-landed a US Airways commercial jet onto the Hudson river after a dual engine failure) is as riveting as this real-life subject matter demands, but it’s also a much deeper character study of the pilot who was rightly hailed a hero, and with a more complex fallout than you’re likely expecting – including a post-crash investigation that calls into question Sully’s decision making.

As the titular pilot, Tom Hanks grounds this turbulent true story with the kind of standout lead performance we’ve come to expect, but the strength of it comes not in him being our go-to icon of virtue (though he fulfills that role nobly) but rather in the conflicted, oppressive nature of Sully’s self doubts, second guesses, and “woulda/coulda/shoulda”s that haunt him in the initial wake of this near-tragedy. It is, in a sense, a muted variation on his Captain Phillips; more internalized, but no less traumatized.

The film’s other primary strength is how screenwriter Todd Komarnicki cleverly structures the timeline. Rather than tracing a straight linear narrative, the movie begins in the immediate aftermath of the event. With Sully’s psychological conflict revealed right off the bat, an existential underlay remains an ever-present subtext as the story navigates back-and-forth between the established “present” of the investigation and then flashbacks to the fateful day’s pre-flight build up. Woven throughout these core plot elements are scenes of personal reflection for Sully – and occasional nightmares – of the gruesome possibilities that almost befell 155 passengers under his care.

This whole narrative construct helps maximize Sully‘s spectacular re-enactment to peak dramatic effect. It crescendos to the film’s raison d’être central sequence that takes us through the flight from start to finish. It’s an extended point-by-point set piece that observes everything from multiple perspectives: in the cockpit, in the cabin, air traffic control, and several angles from the ground (on water, land, and in skyscraper offices).

The intensity is palpable during the rapid decent, not only for intrepid Sully, his steady co-pilot Jeff Skiles (the first-rate Aaron Eckhart), the brave flight attendants and their terrified passengers, but also on land and in the river where multiple public and private crews – from NYPD first responder teams to touring boats, and more – all converge on the slowly sinking aircraft. This is heightened even further with the raw emotions of the passengers as they begin to comprehend what they’ve just survived. It’s all quite something to behold, and it’s one of the best sequences you’ll experience in a movie all year.

(And note: stay through the end credits for full cathartic effect, in which modern day footage of the survivors – led by Sully – are seen, capped off by a final clip of very moving sentiment from Mrs. Lorraine Sullenberger.)

For as assured and captivating as the bulk of this film is, some of its peripheral, intimate scenes are, by contrast, too conventional. The phone calls between Sully and his wife Lorraine are fairly rote exchanges, despite solid performances from Hanks and Laura Linney. It’s the derivative script that undercuts them, and a director who’s fine with these moments being serviceable.

Worse yet is how the lead investigator from the NTSB (National Travel Safety Board) is played up as the “villain”. The formal interviews that put Sully and Skiles on record are compelling in their own right, with challenging but legitimate questions being asked of them, but the NTSB honcho who conducts the process seems too hell bent toward pinning the incident on pilot error and taking Sully down as a scapegoat. It’s forced, feels false, and melodramatically unnecessary.

Even so, it helps set up the climactic “final review board” scene in which multiple computer simulations all contest Sully’s choices, suggesting that safer outcomes were possible, and insinuating grave irresponsibility in Sully’s judgment. Once again, Hanks meters these charged moments so remarkably well, with a humble but resolute and unwavering resolve in the face of such intimidating power tactics.

The next time you’re on the tarmac with your flight delayed, be grateful that there are airline professionals who are concerned for your safety first. Sully is a testament to everyone doing their jobs right, swiftly and professionally – from air, water, and ground – on a sudden moment’s notice, with numerous lives on the line, all in the time it takes you and I to watch a sitcom rerun on Netflix. Those heroic efforts were all made possible by a composed, poised pilot who made every right decision at every exact moment that they needed to be made.

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