Sully is a disaster movie, and not in the way we might expect. It stages the famous moment when Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed a plane in the Hudson River when both engines failed, shortly after take off. The film is filled with the kind of footage that will remind viewers of both Robert Zemeckis’s Flight and Paul Greengrass’s more procedural United 93. Though the spectre of 9/11 hangs over Clint Eastwood’s drama not just in its spectacle, but in the existential disillusionment of its survivors, and the absurd ways in which people and corporations must continue after a life-threatening event.
Tom Hanks – the unluckiest man on the planet when it comes to public transport – plays Sully, a wiry, morose figure with iconic white hair and a healthy moustache. The opening takes place in the aftermath of the event, when he and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are being questioned by an investigative board over whether they did the right thing. The media hails him as a hero, but this bothers Sully. It could be his inner pragmatist, perfectionist, or simply his post-traumatic stress disorder that leads him to resist praise – yet as the drama wears on, the subtitle “Miracle on the Hudson” begins to feel somewhat ironic.
What’s surprising about Eastwood’s film is that he doesn’t withhold the plane crash until the end. He replays it in the middle – to terrific effect – and then replays it again, and again, with subtle variations. There is something blackly humorous about Hanks’ deadpan reaction to a flock of birds (“Birds.”), which is magnified in the climactic trial, where pilots undergo a Brechtian simulation of the event. Miscommunication is rife: the air traffic controller believed the plane was lost in the river, whereas the investigators have not even listened to the plane’s black box recording. All of this serves to de-sensationalise the event, and posit the argument that what Sully did wasn’t special; it was the right thing to do in a culture where we are conditioned to expect the opposite.
The movie isn’t perfect. Laura Linney is a great actress, saddled with nagging conversations over the end of a phone; and the attempts to humanise the passengers are mostly cringeworthy. Yet Eastwood’s crisp, modest, powerful filmmaking shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s the sort of thing Howard Hawks would be proud of.
Sully is released nationwide on 2nd December 2016.
Watch the trailer for Sully here: