I was fairly surprised to discover that Sully, the new film from Clint Eastwood, is only 95 minutes long. Since I don’t like reading or hearing anything about movies before I go see them, I didn’t know Sully’s running time, or anything else about it really—except that it was about Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s emergency landing of a commercial airplane onto the Hudson river. Being a Clint Eastwood film, I just assumed it was about 2:15, as his last five films hovered around that mark.
I bring up the running time because, despite my best efforts, I did hear some chatter about Sully before I saw it—namely, people asking ‘how can they turn this minutes-long event into a feature film?’ The answer, as those 95 minutes show, is: ‘with lean efficiency.’ Eastwood manages to give us a full picture of all the events leading up to, including, and following the ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’ with no padding and no cheap sentimentality.
Since the True Story of an Exceptional Event is a tried-and-true Hollywood genre, it’s worth noting exactly what Sully isn’t. It is not a biopic of Chesley Sullenberger. Yes, we see flashbacks of Sully learning to fly as a young kid, and landing a wonky plane during his tenure in the military. But these flashbacks serve only to give us context for Sully’s piloting experience. It is also not a Paul Greengrass-like documentary recreation of the events of 15 January 2009.
The story is not told linearly, skipping as it does among the moments before takeoff, the ‘208 seconds’ of white-knuckle terror from birdstrike to landing, the following bureaucratic investigation, and the resulting media frenzy as news outlets latched onto a hero-worshipping narrative. But Eastwood isn’t just going for a Hollywoodised deconstruction of events. Sully attempts to show, steadily and methodically, how decades of training and experience led to 155 people surviving a near-catastrophe, instead of perishing in a fiery maelstrom.
I do mean steadily, because Sully is not a film of widely varying pace. The sequences of the plane failing and falling are shot and cut more or less like the scenes of Sully testifying in front of the NTSB, or talking to his wife on the phone, or jogging with co-pilot Jeff Skiles. During the disaster sequences, Eastwood cuts the music and relies on his well balanced shot choices and sound design—as well as, of course, much unobtrusive visual effects work. There is an inherent power to the images of a plane falling low over Manhattan, especially in the post-9/11 United States, and Eastwood never pushes, allowing that power to naturally shine through, sans needless amplification.
In fact, Eastwood eschews cliché at nearly every turn. If you were unfortunate enough to see the previews for Sully before the movie (I watched them after returning from the cinema), you might think that the scenes of Sully testifying in the disaster’s aftermath are filled with cartoonish villains cruelly eviscerating our hero. I’m happy to say, that’s just shady movie marketing; those scenes play in a naturalistic, straightforward way, as does the movie as a whole.
Hanks’s turn as Sullenberger is internal and delicate. He and Eastwood show Sully as a man who can’t really understand what all the fuss is about. The flight began as all flights do, then took a turn in which his experience and instinct took over. He doesn’t think he deserves an intrusive investigation any more than he deserves hugs from strangers or free drinks in bars. While not spoken, Hanks gives you a constant sense of Sully’s desire to return to the comforts of obscurity.
The supporting turns are equally effective. Laura Linney has what could have been a thankless job as ‘the wife who exists just to talk to the main character on the phone.’ But she beautifully conveys the desperate hopelessness one can feel when a loved one is too distant to comfort. Aaron Eckart shows an easy affability as Sully’s co-pilot, who trusts him implicitly, and Anna Gunn gets to showcase the scowl she perfected in her many years on Breaking Bad.
But the real hero of Sully is Eastwood. In a summer of superhero explosions, awash in spastic shooting and editing, it takes a reliable Hollywood Old-Timer to show us how to build genuine excitement and suspense. What does it mean that one of the most moving moments of the year is the simple look of relief upon Tom Hanks’s face, upon learning that all 155 passengers have survived? Well, it means that Sully is one of 2016’s better pictures. Help it make its budget back.