Dir: Clint Eastwood
How much drama can you get from just a few minutes of well-publicised averted disaster? Lots if you’re Clint Eastwood and you shift the focus and tone of what followed.
After successfully landing his immobilized aircraft on the Hudson river with no loss of life, Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) has to defend his course of action to the subsequent NTSB enquiry.
Famous partly because it turned out well, this film manages to still be very effective dramatically even though we might think we know everything about the incident. It doesn’t try to build up to the landing as a big crescendo, rather playing through that scene early on and repeatedly from different perspectives as the details are brought into discussion and dispute. It’s not an aircraft-set film, more a mix of flight drama and the courtroom-like investigation.
Excellent casting, especially of the pilots. Much praise goes to Hanks, rightly so, but I don’t want to overlook Aaron Eckhart who is excellent as first officer Jeff Skiles, someone who was by Sully’s side for both the flight and the inquest. Tom Hanks is perfect casting for almost any role he takes on, here his voice and demeanour have the gravitas and inspire confidence just as you always hope a pilot will. There are scenes as the plane in in the water and being evacuated in which I was astonished by his calm and composure, something Tom Hanks conveyed perfectly.
Almost unavoidably the film makes a point about this being an aviation incident in New York city, how that may have reminded many of 9/11. I felt this was a good point that was well made, long before someone explicitly said it, and once it had been said, sadly then I felt a little like it might have been better to have just let the circumstances make the connection rather than stating it out loud.
As well as the dramatic, there are little moments of humour that works very well, also there’s one moment that made everyone in the cinema gasp with astonishment as a detail is revealed in the course of the investigation. The audience I saw it with were suitably engrossed and seemed to react well to the film in the same way I was, and my friend beside me (who admits he gets emotional at films) shed a few tears by the end.
One thing that did irk me a little was how Sully’s wife Lorraine (perfectly well played by Laura Linney) is only ever on the phone. While we do have frequent conversations between them so she’s well-featured though definitely sidelined, so a little dramatic licence to put her by his side even briefly would have been nice. I don’t thin anybody would begrudge the film doing that, flying her to New York to meet him after the inquest, or even something as simple as a final scene of him returning home after the whole ordeal and prolonged absence happy to see his wife and children again.
The biggest criticism levelled at the film however is the portrayal of the NTSB investigators, who are shown as quite accusatory and prosecutorial. I think this is because the writer and Eastwood have overblown that aspect of the film to (over)compensate for knowing the outcome of the crash. They may have worried that it would not be dramatic enough, so the investigation is presented in a largely harsh tone as if the pilots are being accused of wrongdoing. I can see why the choice was made to weight the drama as they do and apparently Chesley Sullenberger after reading the draft of the script himself asked that the real names of those officials not be used as he didn’t want actual investigators to be presented in that light which seems a fair consideration.
Shot on IMAX cameras which I imagine would have been a good format to see it it, the way things are shot and written did a very good job of putting the viewers in the cockpit, cabin, and rooms, so the immersive nature of IMAX would likely augment that further. I really do think it does manage to be dramatic enough even with the most tense part of the film being the best known part of the story.
There are a couple of mid-credits scenes of the real Sully and crew being reunited with the grateful passengers. In these we see Sully with wife Lorraine which is nice and she speaks very powerfully about the gratitude the passengers have shown to her husband and the crew. It’s a different way of doing the ubiquitous switch at the end of a biopic to show what the real people were like, it makes a nice change from photos or showing the actual footage of something we’d just seen dramatised such as an interview.
As someone who was unimpressed by Eastwood’s last film ‘American Sniper’, this felt like a huge improvement. It’s far more uplifting, less contentious (NTSB portrayal aside), and I much preferred the figure we’re following as his actions are without doubt deserving of praise.
Selected as one of the 10 best films of 2016 by the AFI, ‘Sully’ was generally considered a financial and critical success even though it has not been nominated for many of the big awards, only securing a single Oscar nomination for ‘Best Sound Editing’.