If the cliché holds that no good deed goes unpunished, then Sully captures the ways in which Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is punished for the risk he took in making an emergency landing on the Hudson River in January of 2009.
Sully picks up in the days following what was dubbed a “Miracle on the Hudson,” as Captain Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are interrogated by a National Transit Safety Board panel (Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, Holt McCallany) who alleges that, rather than landing in the Hudson, Sully could have made it safely back to LaGuardia Airport. Meanwhile, both Sully and his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), are overwhelmed by the stress of the media circus and the loss in wages while he is grounded pending the investigation. Rather than the water landing itself, the drama of Sully focuses on the title character’s anxiety over the choice he made and whether or not it will end his four-decade career as a pilot.
Sully essentially has the same plot as Flight (2012), but features an unimpeachable pilot and has the benefit of telling a true and well-publicized story. Although the carefulness and dignity of the central figure makes for considerably less drama than the fraught story of Denzel Washington’s character in Flight, the screenplay of Sully keeps tension in the story by moving back and forth between the investigation and the flight itself, presenting the evidence in the investigation in such a way that it consistently feels like the other shoe is going to drop. In a culture that often takes pleasure in knocking down heroes, Sully’s anxiety that he could be judged a fraud is both natural and, to a degree, contagious. As the story unfolds, I felt like I was trying to solve a puzzle, searching, like Sully, for the element of the investigation that could clear him of suspicion.
The community ethos that pervades Sully also helps to prevent the story from veering toward hero worship. The film focuses on the relationship between Sully, Skiles, and their support system. Similarly, in the parts that focus on the flight, the relationships between passengers are featured in “slice of life” moments that briefly but sufficiently bring out the stakes for Sully landing the plane safely. The rescue scenes demonstrate the community ethos of the city as ferry drivers and first responders quickly pull the passengers out of the river. This emphasis on team efforts is clearly intentional. One New York Times article recounted how director Clint Eastwood consulted with one of the ferry drivers involved in the rescue and, when the ferry driver critiqued the dialogue, Eastwood cast him to play himself realistically.
Bringing the different elements of this narrative together is a strong ensemble cast surrounding Tom Hanks in an excellent performance. Although the role of Sully is not much of a stretch for Hanks, who has spent a career establishing himself as a loveable, reliable authority figure, he still delivers with a steadiness that reflects the character of the seasoned pilot. Although most of the ensemble cast only has brief screentime to work with, in their parts they capture the human drama aboard the plane, as well as the mixture of relief and shock after the landing. Aaron Eckhart is a fine side kick to Sully. The performances of those on the NTSB panel are a little wooden and flat, putting their role in jeopardy of being a caricature of bureaucracy.
Sully is well-told and the narrative is supported by strong acting and effects. Although the story kept me engaged up until its conclusion, the ending of the film arrives so suddenly and closes so abruptly, I was surprised that it was really over. This ending did not serve a creative purpose that I could discern and instead left the film feeling incomplete. I rate Sully 4/5 stars.
Sully was directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. It runs 96 minutes and is rated PG-13 for some peril and brief, strong language.