Film critic Josh Woods reviews Sully, Clint Eastwood’s biopic based on the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’
Clint Eastwood directs this adaptation of the real-life ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, where Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger managed to safely ditch his plane carrying 155 people on the Hudson River without a single casualty. It’s January 2009, Sully and his crew have just saved the day, and against the dreary pessimism of financial crisis and a bitterly cold winter, New Yorkers are at last aglow with something, and someone, to celebrate. Set in the immediate aftermath of the ‘Miracle’, our reluctant hero, played superbly by Tom Hanks, is greeted by tributes from taxi drivers, kisses from David Letterman’s makeup artist, inappropriate hugs from a hotel concierge, and new cocktails bearing his name in bars. But all is not well with Sully: plagued with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he is overwhelmed by the hounding media presence and endures repeated nightmares of crashing his aircraft into the heart of Manhattan. More seriously, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) scrutinise whether Sully made the correct call and did not in fact endanger live through his actions in the cockpit, putting his reputation and his family’s financial security in jeopardy.
It is this depiction of the NTSB that has led to a certain controversy surrounding Sully. Eastwood, not exactly known for his love of government institutions, has come under fire for portraying the NTSB as merciless bullies, with more concern for insurance claims than for actual human lives. Their attempts to penalise Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) form the central conflict that drives the narrative forward, and you can certainly see why some have condemned this film for using the story of US Airways Flight 1549 to propagate a small government agenda and unfairly tarnish an organisation that fights for life-saving legislation. But perhaps this interpretation misses the point. Whilst the way we tell stories inherently conveys something of our worldview, Sully won’t leave viewers railing against American transport safety policy. – its depiction of a diverse but unified New York tenderly affirms our common humanity. At a crucial moment during the climactic NTSB hearing Sully points out the vital error of the computerised flight simulations: they forgot to account for the human factor.
It is the ‘human factor’ that makes Sully successfully land the plane, through his exceptional intuition and sense of timing. And it is the adulation of family values that lies at this film’s heart: the souls of 155 people are on board Flight 1549, but the lives of many more are at stake when we consider their families. Hanks’ understated portrayal of Sully perfectly captures our hero’s professionalism, with he and Skiles acting as exemplary role models of honest, clean-living family men. Their attitude distinguishes this movie from the similarly themed Flight (2012) which starred Denzel Washington in the lead role as an irresponsible, intoxicated pilot. It matters more to Sully and Skiles that they can assure themselves they ‘did a good job’ than it does to be national heroes. A true hero doesn’t rush off afterwards for an interview with the Mayor of New York, he carries on working until he knows all 155 passengers are safe.
The landing itself is presented through a jumbled chronology of extended flashbacks seen from differing perspectives, that allows for little moments of dramatic irony (one particularly late family are seen begging to be allowed to board the plane, unable to bear the thought of another delay). Considering the incredible drama set against breath-taking aerial shots of wintry New York and the grey Hudson River, it is remarkable how gently the film handles this material. Sully avoids gratuitously indulging in the passengers’ terror, and the unavoidable parallel to 9/11 is alluded to tastefully on just one occasion.
Verdict: Just as our pilot’s greatness lies in his modesty and dedication to doing his job properly, this movie’s success lies in ability to tell its story with succinct no-frills execution. Whilst hardly breaking any new ground, Sully is nonetheless an impressive telling of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’.
Article by Josh Woods