Cinematically dramatizing the event known as the Miracle on the Hudson would seem a task begging for a loud, bombastic treatment. The need to fill in the blanks and pad out the story to feature length only puts more pressure on the actual "miracle" to grandly deliver, but Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have taken a surprisingly different approach, making their movie not about the event, but rather the man who made it all happen.
Veteran commercial airliner pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks, epically mustachioed) was deemed a hero after he landed a United Airlines plane in the middle of the frigid Hudson River following a sudden engine failure, saving every single soul on the flight and acting humble as hell afterwards, but Eastwood’s approach is decidedly more sombre and sober than celebratory. We still get a scene where Hanks ambles into a Manhattan bar and receives enthusiastic praise from a bartender played by Michael Rappaport with his distinct energy and honesty, except Sully shrugs off the praise quickly, as if he's uncomfortable with it.
He doesn’t need to be a hero, while the airline kind of wants him to be the villain. The movie plays out in the days following the successful landing of the plane, with Sully stuck in New York City as meetings with the National Transportation Safety Board are held and an investigation drags on. His family waits patiently for him back home in a San Francisco suburb, which causes a strange tension to upset the positivity of Sully’s achievement.
Obviously, there wouldn’t be much story to tell if Sully just walked out of the plane and everyone crowned him the king of New York and had nothing but praise to heap upon his gutsy actions, but the clear alternative is setting the movie before the forced water landing and leading up to the big moment that we all know is coming. Then the conflict becomes the actual event, anticipating it and viewing the moments prior with the knowledge of what is yet to come.
Some of those moments are present in Eastwood’s movie, accessible through flashbacks, but the decision to focus on the aftermath and the complications that arise when someone does their job exceptionally well with millions of dollars on the line for their employer is what makes Sully so interesting. All our protagonist and his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney, little to do, but doing it well anyways because she’s Laura Linney) want is for Sully to be airborne again, to get back to his job. It’s a simple, relatable problem that brings the whole concept of heroism down to a very humanistic and grounded level.
Eastwood has, of course, fashioned much of his directing career around dissecting the definition of a hero. From his dual-sided look at the battle of Iwo Jima to his cranky old man swan song Gran Torino to his recent American Sniper, Eastwood has long since been intrigued by the makeup of a hero and the differences between how the public views such a person and how the person views themselves.
Considering that, Sully is another intriguing entry in Eastwood’s filmography because it’s less about propping up the titular character as some bastion of selflessness than it is about sympathizing with him now that he's unfairly caught in this mess. The personal angle is provided an added dimension with a couple flashbacks that focus on the early days of Sully’s flying career. He takes a ride in a crop-duster and later pilots a tricky fighter jet during a practice run.
Constantly reiterating Sully’s passion for aviation further deepens the conflict because it feels like his very occupation is turning its back on him. He’s a man essentially cut off from his family and his work, with only buddy and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) to cheer him up from time to time. A sense of melancholy hangs over the majority of the movie, as if it too is weighed down by the harsh reality of saving a bunch of people only to rile the airline industry in the process.
In the midst of this quietly observational character study is a series of reenactments of the actual plane landing, which Eastwood doesn’t stage as one extended suspense sequence, but rather as a collection of moments dispersed throughout the entire narrative. This allows the event to adopt a somewhat mythic air, which coincides curiously with the eye-level look at the pilot who pulled off the impossible. Eastwood also provides a range of perspectives, several of them belonging to the rescuers. This allows us to cinematically witness the event from various angles, further bolstering Sully’s message that this was the work of many and not just one.
This particular approach to the story of Sully and his efforts to prove that his water landing was the safest possible option on that fateful day is what allows the movie to be more compelling and engaging than a quick plot synopsis would suggest. Eastwood certainly isn’t questioning whether or not Sully is a hero. That much is clear from the start, suggested by the casting of beloved American icon Hanks and supported by the smarmy, antagonistic attitudes of the investigation team that is dead-set on proving that Sully simply overreacted and misjudged a more neatly fixable situation. The casting of the team is another loud hint, since Mike O’Malley plays the lead investigator and O’Malley’s familiar onscreen demeanour is hardly warm and fuzzy.
Eastwood’s reverence of his protagonist ultimately leads to a slightly silly third act that drags out the investigative hearing as a way of sticking it to the only people who don’t believe Sully made the right call. It’s at this point that the movie goes a little over-the-top because Eastwood seems a little too gleeful about showing the NTSB team to be fools, but even then, the assurance that justice is being served and that our hero will come out on top is a calm one.
For a movie about a plane going down in post-9/11 New York and made by a man who was once an action hero and then took to directing himself and others as heroes, this all feels much more subdued than one might expect. Fittingly, it’s a bit like Chesley Sullenberger himself, or at least the version we know: quiet and confident, humble and humane. Eastwood’s Sully is a portrait that honours its subject admirably, exploring not what makes a man a hero, but instead what makes a hero a man.