When US Airways flight 1549 lost both engines shortly after take-off, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) quickly made a choice based on experience and instinct. He took the Airbus A320 down for a forced water landing on the Hudson river. Miraculously not a single life was lost, and he was immediately dubbed a hero by the public.
But not everyone saw Sully in this same light. As the film opens we are introduced to Sully as he struggles with the (understandable) trauma from the event. He’s haunted by nightmares, and sometimes waking visions, of what could have happened. While confident in the skills he had accumulated over 42 years as a pilot, Sully still wonders if there was anything else he could have done. At first it’s only a small nagging thought that anyone would have after such a major event. But when the NTSB suddenly starts treating Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Stiles (Aaron Eckhart) in an accusery manner, these self-doubts begin to grow. Even though the airline was originally congratulating Sully and Stiles for saving all those lives with their quick thinking, the tune quickly changes when the insurance company gets involved. Pleasantries suddenly morph into a barrage of probing questions. “When was your last drink? How’s your blood sugar level? Get enough sleep last night? Having any trouble at home?”
The film shines when Clint Eastwood focuses on who Sully is as a man and the support he receives from both his co-pilot and wife (Laura Linney). It’s always fascinating to study an ordinary man who has been thrust into extra-ordinary circumstances. Even more so to watch this person summon the last shreds of inner strength and confidence to stand against a group of people who are actively trying to destroy his reputation and career for the sake of their bottom line.
The performances by the entire cast are impeccable, but particularly enjoyable is the chemistry and camaraderie between Hanks and Eckhart. Stiles and Sully are two sides of the same coin; one wise, experienced, and tempered by age, the other younger, brash, and unafraid of jumping to the defense of his captain.
There are a few things in the movie that unfortunately tend to dampen the overall experience, the largest being the water landing sequence itself. This isn’t to say that these scenes aren’t well made. For the most part they are exceptional. The CGI is quite good, never once taking you out of “reality” with cheap effects, and as the cabin begins to fill with water, the fear is quite palpable. The issue is with how these scenes are used. It’s not till nearly the halfway point when we are finally shown the full sequence of events in an extended flashback. The segment takes on a Roland Emmerich feel starting with “meet-cute” introductions of random passengers as they arrive at the airport. When we are already emotionally invested in Sully and Stiles, it’s surprising that Eastwood would take time diverting our attention to a handful of random passengers that have zero bearing on the story later on? What’s worse is these particular characters seem less like real people and more like “characters.” The other surprising directorial choice is how many times we’re shown the water landing. At first, we only catch short glimpses and partial flashbacks, so once the extended segment plays, everything lines up nicely. But right after a spectacular victory in the final hearing, we’re subjected to the entire 208 second flight again. It ends up feeling like a lot of repetition and padding for a 95 minute movie. (Eastwood’s shortest film to date!)
It’s no easy task to craft a feature film from an event that took place in under 4 minutes. Even with the caveats mentioned above, “Sully” is filled with brilliant moments and is certainly worth seeing.