Well, like most Americans, I had no doubts — zero — about the heroism and grace under pressure of U.S. Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. But I do now, thanks to “Sully.”
So, thanks for that, Clint Eastwood.
“Sully” was the guy who brought that crippled Airbus down on the Hudson River back in 2009, right smack in the middle of New York, and saved 155 souls aboard. Eastwood’s movie is a study in cool, unshowy professionalism — that of Sullenberger, a pilot on the brink of retirement, his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the equally experienced stewardesses, who followed protocol as they barked “Brace brace brace, don’t look up” over and over at the alarmed passengers who had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport.
“Sully” celebrates air traffic control, the calm enforced there, the crisp exchange of requests, suggestions and alternatives unemotionally delivered by radio — from plane to tower, airport to airport and eventually, tourist helicopter to tower and so on.
Ferryboat captains and police scuba divers/rescue swimmers alike keep it together, improvise and make even the most astonishing rescue of its type seem like another day on the job. These were, one and all, men and women with “The Right Stuff.”
But “Sully” is also about nagging guilt, nightmare scenarios and the adversarial nature of NTSB (National Transporation Safety Board) hearings. If there’s a criticism built into Eastwood’s movie, based on Sullenberger’s book, it is in that process. It’s as if the political Clint doesn’t realize that tough government inquiries are how all those myriad procedures were decided upon, how every stewardess and steward flying today knows that “Brace! Brace! Brace!” mantra and must follow it to the letter.
We see the crash — “This was not a crash. It was a forced water landing!” — from several angles through the film, 208 seconds replayed from the cabin, the cockpit, the control tower, and finally on the CVR (cockpit voice recorder). It is vivid, but not remotely as harrowing as those depicted in movies like “Fearless” or “Alive.” That it wasn’t is a tribute to the quick thinking of the pilot. No, he didn’t check all his data points. He “felt” the plane go. And the landing choice?
“I eyeballed it.”
Hanks plays this guy as stoic, exceptionally buttoned down, just what you’d want in your airline pilot — experienced, a safety expert whose post-retirement future was to be in consulting on that very subject, an ex-Air Force pilot who once guided a crippled combat jet to a safe landing, as seen in a flashback. It’s not a dazzling performance, just a comforting one. Eastwood has found another tough, professional Texan to embrace.
But Sully’s nightmares the day or two after the crash are the what ifs — a jetliner tearing through lower Manhattan or coastal New Jersey. And the first words from the NTSB (Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan) are that he guessed wrong, read the data and the plane wrong. Simulations show this as an aircraft that could have returned to the airport.
I like the way Sheridan’s NTSB questioner can’t look Sully in the eyes, at first, and I love the script’s treatment of the heady, unnerving nature of sudden New York celebrity. Random women hug him, give him kisses. Limo drivers and hotel managers call it “an honor” to serve him.
Bartenders (Michael Rappaport) and barflies want to drink a “Sully” with him — “That’s a shot’a Grey Goose, and a splash of water! Get it?”
Because the media have decided, based on the survival of one and all, that Sully is a hero. He’s not so sure, the NTSB has its data driven doubts, and his rattled wife (Laura Linney) seems in shock, at a loss, fumbling for words of comfort that just won’t come.
Still, there are obvious missteps. Sully never announced to the passengers and crew that the engines were out and they were crashing, just an abrupt “Brace for impact.” He’s shown as unhurried, not panicked, but too distracted to jump on the radio to the tower to alert them that air sea rescue was going to be needed. When the plane comes to a halt, the limits to procedures — nobody is there to guide passengers off the wings and into life rafts because the stewardesses are still inside getting everybody off the plane — pop up.
The brevity — “Sully” is just 96 minutes long — and few flashbacks don’t get us past the mask that Sully himself wears for public consumption. The performances are, to a one, poker-faced and guarded. Hanks is no weepy “Captain Phillips” here. And all that plays into Eastwood’s on-screen ethos. Man-up, be prepared, do your job.
“Sully” might not rank among Eastwood’s greatest films, but it shows his canny skill at deciding how to tell a story in which everybody knows the ending. That he manages to make it suspenseful and downright moving shows him at his professional best, just like every everyday hero he celebrates in the film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
Cast: Tom Hanks, Laura Linney, Aaron Eckhart, Anna Gunn
Credits: Directed by Clint Eastwood, script by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book by Chesley “Sully” SullenbergerA Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:36