You cannot deny the fact Sully was green-lit, at least in part, due to its likeliness to attract Oscar voters. The inherent tension and heroism of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger‘s forced water landing on the Hudson River in 2009 was ripe for adaptation from the moment it happened, and the presence of powerhouse talent like Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks is more than enough to convince people there is a story worth hearing. Still, despite all the pandering to Academy voters and those in positions of power within the film industry, there is something beautifully simple about Sully that works like gangbusters on the big screen.
Running a brisk 96 minutes, Sully recounts the emergency landing Sullenberger pulled off with US Airways Flight 1549, which famously crashed into the Hudson River just outside New York City in January 2009. The incident has since become known as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” with Sully himself being praised as a hero, but Eastwood’s latest is not a celebration of one man’s accomplishments. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of that. Sully digs between the scenes witnessed on broadcast news to uncover the true story about what happens to a pilot after a crash landing, complete with an internal investigation and the unavoidable presence of self-doubt over whether or not all the right decisions were made.
The actual incident lasted no more than 30 minutes in total, which also accounts the time needed for rescue services to save the passengers and crew. Eastwood revisits the flight three times throughout the film, including one long sequence detailing the rescue from both sea and air, but the majority of Sully takes place in hotel rooms and conference centers. Sully, along with co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), is tasked with telling his side of the story and the reasoning behind his decision to attempt landing on the Hudson to a panel of their peers. The question is not whether what happened was heroic, but rather if it was necessary. Simulations claim Flight 1549 could have made it to one of the nearby airports, and wrestling with whether or not the right call was made is the kind of thing that keeps Sully, Skiles, and their families awake at night.
Those unfamiliar with the events that followed Flight 1549’s forced water landing will no doubt find the material in Sully more compelling than those well versed in the history of the incident, but even those who know the story will find it hard to deny the entrancing talent of Hanks in the film’s lead role. Sully is a deceptively simple man who carries the weight of regret and doubt with a sense of class and dignity rarely seen. You can almost feel the stress and tension present in every scene where he appears, but to see him speak and interact with the world around him you might not believe it exists. The ability to convey the lingering fears of having endangered over a hundred lives without good reason to do so while also maintaining an outward cool and making us believe it is something very few in Hollywood can pull off. Hanks, however, makes it look easy. Between his talent in front of the camera and Eastwood’s direction behind it, every frame of Sully feels incredibly polished. Some may claim this is a fault, as there is never an element of true suspense beyond the crash itself, but others will revel in seeing two masters of film working at their absolute peak.
Eastwood once said that the role of a director is to be “interpreting” a story rather than “creating” it, and that is precisely how he approaches the story of Chesley Sullenberger in this film. Are changes made to the events that immediately followed the crash of Flight 1549? Sure. Do they impact the central narrative? Not really. Eastwood sees something of an everyman in Sullenberger, and he spends the bulk of the film’s runtime asking us to ask ourselves how we would handle such a seemingly impossible situation. Any one of us could—and many one day will—find ourselves in a position where we have to make a split-second decision that could forever impact our life and the lives of those around us. The trick to making it through those times with heart and mind intact is belief in one’s self and the knowledge that there are rarely perfect solutions. Sully is simply a story about a man making a decision he believes in, and it makes for a surprisingly moving watch.