In Sully, Clint Eastwood presents yet another iteration of the man versus the myth. Like many of the indefatigable actor and director’s previous titles, Sully is about the iconic poster and its all-too-human subject – this time a commercial pilot whose split-second decision to land a damaged plane on water earns him praise, undue attention and censure.
Eastwood’s modest movie, based on a Todd Komarnicki screenplay, has been inspired by the US Airways Flight 1549 that landed on the Hudson River in New York City on January 15, 2009, after both its engines failed. The script also draws from Highest Duty, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s memoir. Sully’s all-American hero is a variation of the gruff, laconic, conscientious and misunderstood everyman portrayed by Eastwood and other actors for decades. Sully (Tom Hanks) becomes a hero for having performed a post-Christmas miracle, the only one in New York City that involves a plane and doesn’t end horribly. Drawing on his years of experience, Sully and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) daringly land the plane on the chilly surface of the Hudson. The passengers survive with a few scratches, the media scrum catches up with Sully and his harried wife Lorraine (Laure Linney), while the national safety board wants to know why two available runways were ignored in favour of a highly risky landing.
Eastwood extracts surprising riches from scanty material best suited for television drama. He kicks off the movie with a nightmare that makes Sully’s act all the more worthy and sets up the pilot’s momentary loss of faith with his customary neatness, directness and efficiency. The characters are well-etched, and the pre-water landing sequence is a lesson in economy and impact. The harrowing sequence works so much more effectively than the other middling bits, including the clunky flashbacks to Sully’s childhood, that Eastwood replays it with a slightly different perspective.
Eastwood’s plain and to-the-point filmmaking style syncs perfectly with Hanks’s marvellously underplayed and understated characterisation. Hanks’s Sully hits just the right notes of fear, frustration, ambivalence and pride. He is no ordinary hero, but he is not extraordinary either – I’m just doing my job, he shrugs. That sounds a lot like Eastwood.