Directed by Clint Eastwood | Written by Todd Komarnicki, adapting the book by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow | 96 min | ▲▲▲△△
A filmmaker in his 80s, Eastwood is someone whose public persona has been getting crustier and more conservative as he’s aged. It’s tempting to read those political leanings in his filmmaking choices as many did with his last feature, the immensely popular American Sniper.
Here he celebrates the everyday heroes, people who do extraordinary things while doing their jobs. Hard to argue with that kind of movie, but his story needs a villain, and so becomes the bureaucracy of the National Transportation Safety Board, a government agency.
According to the film— in the days following the “Miracle on the Hudson”, when commercial airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) landed his stricken craft in the water off Manhattan, saving 155 lives—the NTSB hounded Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) about whether or not they might have made it back to Laguardia Airport. The computer simulations suggested maybe they easily could have.
The problem is, this isn’t how it actually happened. In reality the NTSB were much more supportive of Sully than the film suggests. The NTSB isn’t exactly demonized, but they’re certainly depicted as bureaucratic busybodies who cleave to rules that don’t take into account the human element, what an experienced pilot like Sully brought to that moment in the sky when he had to make the call.
Putting aside the fictional dramatization, does the film work? More or less.
Eastwood chose to shoot Sully entirely with IMAX cameras, which gives it an incredibly crisp look in the fore and background. It reveals a little shoddy lighting in the interior scenes, and there’s some CGI of the plane crash that’s pretty bad, but the mid-movie centrepiece of human drama in and around the rescue of the passengers and crew is nail-bitingly good.
Hanks and Eckhart are also perfectly cast—providing the film with all the heart it needs, as well as two excellent non-ironic moustaches. But Laura Linney has an entirely thankless role as Sully’s wife, there to react on the other end of the phone but never to share a scene with him.
Making explicit Sully’s night-and-day-mares of planes crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers also feels poorly judged, especially given the release of the film so close to 9/11. When is such a thing exploitative of people’s memories and fears? This may have crossed the line.
There are things here to enjoy and admire in Sully, largely in Eastwood’s storytelling professionalism and in spending time with Hanks and Eckhart. But whether it sinks or floats beyond that? Your air miles may vary.