It’s a tricky thing about the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger. The true story of the man who landed an airplane in the Hudson River saving 155 lives, including two infants, is absolutely amazing. But it only lasted 208 seconds. He’s a hero, but in reality heroes don’t make great movie plots because they’re really just normal people. There just isn’t much there beyond 208 seconds of action and the NTSB’s investigation into it. How do you make 208 seconds compelling for a feature length run time.
You get Clint Eastwood to direct and Tom Hanks to star.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Release Date: September 9, 2016
If you missed out on the year 2009 for some reason then you may not have heard the story of Sully Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), the lifetime pilot who successfully performed a water landing in the middle of the Hudson River after both engines of his plane were hit by geese after take off. We’ve all seen the iconic image of the airplane slowly sinking in the water as passengers stand on the wings and New York ferry boats speed to their rescue. It was miraculous and amazing and seemed to come just at the right time with just the right man. Very few people could have pulled off the landing. In fact water landings almost never work.
Sully purports to tell the story behind the landing, but in reality there isn’t that much story to tell. Instead Eastwood smartly focuses on just the 208 seconds and the split second decision that Captain Sullenberger had to make, driving the film into a character study instead of an action piece. To do this the film vilifies the NTSB, making them into a giant government organization that wants to protect itself from lawsuits. This casts doubts into the mind of Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and it is within this frame that we relive the crash multiple times from multiple views. All this surrounded by Sullenberg’s self doubt and determination to prove he’s done the right thing.
It is a brilliant construction for the film that avoids turning the movie into an overwrought action film and instead ratchets up the tension. Despite repeating the same 208 seconds multiple times you’re drawn in each time, experiencing it in a different way. One time a nightmare of how everything could have gone wrong. The next glimpsing the fear New Yorkers had seeing a plane once again flying low in their city. Yet another pulling us into the passenger experience. Yet never once does it feel like pandering thanks to Eastwood jumping back to focus on the man himself and his inner demons.
That isn’t to say the film avoids all issues of the standard “based on a true story” simplifications. A lot of the drama after the crash feels played up. The NTSB is turned into an evil organization intent on proving that Sullenberger shouldn’t have landed in the river and tensions with his wife seem ratcheted up just for dramatic effect. In reality the NTSB was probably just doing its job and I’m hard pressed to find anything that justifies the innuendo of a troubled marriage. This is what we call dramatic licence, however, and without it Eastwood’s movie would have been 208 seconds of excitement and then following a man on a press tour.
The biggest issue here is that the two plot lines can take a bit away from the actual PTSD and stress the Sullenberger was under. They never get the chance to though as Eastwood keeps the film to just around 90 minutes, a true rarity in a time of bloated bio pics.
He’s also got a cast that could make almost anything work. Hanks exudes the charm and confidence that made Sully so likable to America. Yet his performance is tinged with a sadness that brings humanity to the character. The landing is not one of an action hero, but that of a man doing the best he can in very bad circumstances. Eckhart delivers a strong supporting role, though his character is mostly there as an exposition piece for Sully.
What matters in the end is those 208 seconds, however. Somehow Eastwood pulls out more drama, feeling and emotion from just that brief amount of time than most epics do in three hour running periods. Sully is another testament to just how deft a filmmaker Eastwood is because it’s easy to tell the “true” story of a hero, but it’s hard to tell the true story of a man.