Tom Hanks has been the go to guy for playing American heroes and for good reason; he never plays characters as people gunning to become heroes at any given opportunity. Whether it is Captain Miller in “Saving Private Ryan,” Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13,” Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia,” Forrest Gump or even Jimmy Dugan in “A League of Their Own,” Hanks has long been the master of playing ordinary Americans who are just trying to get by in the rough and tumble real world the best way they know how. None of these characters set out for the adulation of others, but for a sense of purpose and justice in a world which at times seems devoid of it.
Now we can add Chesley Sullenberger to Hanks’ list of noble American characters with his excellent performance in “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the airline pilot’s dramatic landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. We all know this story of how the flight suffered dual engine failure shortly after takeoff due to a flock of Canadian geese flying straight at them, but Eastwood and Hanks dig deeper into what went on as Sullenberger and his First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are soon drilled by the National Transportation Safety Board as tests imply the left engine on the plane did not fail, meaning they still could have landed at LaGuardia Airport or one in New Jersey instead of on the water.
Sullenberger was quickly hailed a national hero for successfully landing the plane and saving all the lives aboard it, but this movie shows him more troubled by what he did than proud. He becomes plagued with nightmares and PTSD over how the flight could have ended in a catastrophic way. Also, with him and Skiles being thrown into instant stardom for their actions, Sullenberger ends up feeling isolated from everyone around him as people are eager to hug him or shake his hand in congratulating him for what he accomplished.
What I especially liked about “Sully” is how it shows the damaging effect sudden fame can have on an individual. While some might be super excited about appearing on “Late Night with David Letterman” or being interviewed by Katie Couric (who plays herself in this movie), Sullenberger finds him retreating from all the media attention as he never asked for it. While he constantly reaches out to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), they are separated by thousands of miles as she resides on the other side of the country. Even as they talk on the phone, the space between them feels quite profound and loneliness soon becomes his best friend.
Hanks’ performance as Sullenberger reminds us of why we look to him to play those people we see as American heroes; they are people not quick to jump into the spotlight and appear unsure as to what to do once they are thrust into it. Hanks never sets out to impersonate Sullenberger, but instead seeks to capture his state of mind following this unforgettable incident. The Oscar winning actor does excellent work in showing how Sullenberger is beset by tremendous self-doubt as he is forced to wonder if he made the right decision in light of all the computer generated evidence presented to him.
Hanks is also supported by a strong supporting cast of actors whom can never be expected to let him or Eastwood down at any second. Eckhart is the definition of strong support as his character of First Officer Jeff Skiles stands by Sullenberger every step of the way. There’s also Laura Linney who plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, who does her best to support her husband over the phone any chance she gets. While in some ways Linney has a thankless role to play here, she justifies Lorraine’s presence in the film as the character is the support Sully needs through the most trying of times.
One of the key things Eastwood gets across here as a director is how the human element has to take precedence of the technological one as not everything can be solved or reasoned out completely by computers. This is especially interesting as Eastwood is best known for directing movies which deal heavily in human nature and its ever-growing complexity, but this time he has some nifty tools to work with. Eastwood got to shoot much of “Sully” with IMAX cameras, and seeing this movie on the nearest IMAX screen is a must.
The plane crash sequence is masterfully directed as we see pilots and flight attendants at their most professional during a moment of crisis. While we all know how things will turn out here, it is still a pulse pounding scene as we are with everyone on this plane from when they take off to when they land on the Hudson. The sound of the engines dying down and of silence in midair is unnerving, and it’s not every day you see a commercial jet land in the water.
Eastwood also makes us remember how the human element plays as big part in movies as do visual effects. He has not set out to give us a biopic on Sullenberger, and that’s even though there are moments sprinkled throughout which show his beginnings as a pilot and other significant experiences which molded him into the pilot he became. Instead, he is far more interested in the impact this one miraculous moment can have on a person’s life and of the obstacles it places in front of them.
Thank goodness Eastwood did not put the term “based on a true story” at the beginning of “Sully.” We all know this happened. Does Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki play loose with the facts? Sure, but most movies like this do. The NTSB has objected to the way they have been portrayed here, and they do come across as overly villainous at times. But in terms of the story’s dramatic arc, it makes sense why they were portrayed as such here. To his credit, Sullenberger requested that the names of the real-life NTSB investigators, which were featured in the original draft, be changed as he felt it would be unfair to associate them with the changes in the story. Whatever the case, “Sully” is still a very compelling and gripping motion picture to sit through.
Some still question whether Chesley Sullenberger deserves to be called a hero as they believe he still could have landed at an airport. Others I know personally have accused him of using his pulpit to trash professional pilots for no good reason. But neither Eastwood or Hanks made this movie to deify Sullenberger as to do so would seriously cheapen the story for no good reason. They simply show us an ordinary man who was forced to make a quick decision in order to save the lives of many, and he was not out to call himself more heroic than others for his actions.
But also, “Sully” shows how an entire life can too often be boiled down, often unfairly so, to a single moment which renders all other accomplishments moot. In today’s media and technology saturated culture, people are never defined too broadly anymore but instead by specific actions more than anything else. The Buddha once said the merit of a whole life can be undone in a single moment. This could have been the fate Sullenberger would have been forced to accept, but he rose to the occasion and saved many lives in the process. As this movie shows, he was never out to be a hero. He was simply a human being doing his job.
And if nothing else, the movie shows Americans, especially those in New York, rising to the occasion and helping the passengers get to the shore safely. However which way you want to look at the story of US Airways Flight 1549, it did provide us with a happy ending we desperately wanted to have.
* * * ½ out of * * * *
Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.