Silver Screen: Sully ****
I was back in Southern Illinois for a stretch of last week, so I caught Sully at a Friday matinee in Marion. I came in a bit late, well into the previews, and found my way to a seat in the dark.
When the lights went up afterward, I turned and saw scores of Trump hats, like a field of red wildflowers— red, angry, conspiratorial, misguided (at best) wildflowers.
In retrospect, it couldn’t have gone any other way. A 2 p.m. matinee show is an inevitable hotbed of the elderly and underemployed, and Sully is a movie tailor-made for the crotchety set. It’s the story of a graying white guy who’s great at his job, has old-fashioned ideas, hates bureaucracy, and conveys a crusty demeanor toward the media, celebrity, and... well, toward most things. As a bonus, the movie is directed by America’s Designated Curmudgeon in Chief, eighty-six-year-old Clint Eastwood, who dispenses justice with a big gun and angry political opinions to an empty chair.
Sully himself, of course, needs little introduction. Chesley Sullenberger went from anonymous airline pilot to overnight hero in January 2009 when he successfully landed a failing passenger plane in the middle of a river in New York City. Dubbed the Miracle on the Hudson, Sully’s spectacular feat came on the heels of the failing Iraq War and the financial collapse, at a time when Americans were desperate for a happy story and a surrogate grandpa to make them feel safer.
Sully’s astonishing, unprecedented water landing saved the lives of 154 other people. Had it not somehow happened in real life, it might not even seem like a plausible stunt in a movie.
The cinematic conundrum for Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (adapting Sullenberger’s own memoir) is where to position the action. If you frontload the action, the audience is thumb-twiddling to the end, aware the excitement has ceased, but if you try to hold it out for the climax you risk turning the film into a prolonged tease to a single effects sequence.
Their clever solution: Screw it, show it twice.
Eastwood first presents the dramatic crash into the Hudson near the end of the first act, about half an hour through— and it’s a doozy. The breathtaking sequence is shown from several different perspectives. We see Sully (Tom Hanks, perfectly cast and wonderful) and his trusty copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) as they puzzle through a desperate situation, as well as flight attendants and passengers along for the harrowing ride. But Eastwood frequently cuts away to characters who share the audience’s rapt, helpless perspective: air-traffic controllers, businesspeople in nearby skyscraper windows, and ferry captains who watch, slackjawed, convinced they’re about to see a jet airliner explode in a freezing river.
Later, Eastwood restages the events during a climactic Federal Aviation Administration hearing in which Sully and Skiles are called before a review board by some improbably snarling bureaucrats looking to prove the miracle was a misguided stunt. The review board (including Anna Gunn and Mike O’Malley) is all but transformed into moustache-twirling villains, but it’s a powerful finale watching the pilots listen to the 209-second flight-data recording as they flash back to their quick decision-making in the cockpit.
Interspersed between the flashbacks and the hearings are scenes of Sully struggling to cope with his sudden fame and talking to his wife (Laura Linney), who gets one of the all-time obligatory worried-woman-on-the-telephone roles. Overall it’s touching stuff that reveals the troubling after-effects of a traumatic situation. Eastwood also spends just enough time establishing smaller storylines with a few passengers to remind us that that the sum total of the humanity onboard the doomed aircraft amounted to a lot more than just the number 155.
One minor aggravation: Eastwood and Komarnicki hit upon a great idea of showing the water landing from multiple perspectives up front, then again from our hero’s vantage point, but they don’t commit fully enough to the premise. The second go-round at those 209 seconds could have been even more powerful as a single, uninterrupted scene, but the director cuts away a couple times, just enough to puncture the building tension.
Still, the Miracle on the Hudson is a real-life event that deserves all the superlatives heaped upon it, and Eastwood does a terrific job shaping it into a narrative. Sully himself is very much the picture of the idealized American hero, a humble citizen who’s great at his job, and who knows all the rules but uses a dash of maverick ingenuity to transcend the boundaries of what we perceive as possible. The film is a fine, fitting tribute.
But what makes Sully such a hero isn’t just his amazing feat. As the plane slowly sinks into the Hudson, he charges back into the freezing water to make certain every single one of those other 154 people, strangers, has been escorted to safety. He’s driven, almost to the point of fervor, by the bedrock belief that he is responsible for the well-being of his fellow man.
That’s something Trump’s red-hat brigade might do well to ponder.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillerComedy.