There’s a familiar mix of proficiency and predictability about Clint Eastwood’s filmmaking these days. The 86 year old has little time to waste on finesse and the subsequent ‘flatness’ of many of his films is a reminder of the shortcomings of his relentlessly economical approach to filming. Combined here with the re-telling of a remarkable real-life tale, Sully (2016) still proves to be one of his finer recent works, far superior to the drab Hereafter (2010) and, especially, the occasionally risible American Sniper (2014). Most of the thanks this time around must go to the reliable, unwavering presence of Tom Hanks who, though he might rightly be derided for never stepping out of his comfort zone, does here what he does best – playing a man of scruples and integrity and doing so with utter conviction and sincerity.
Pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s decision – based on split second calculations when faced with catastrophe – to attempt to land his US Airways aircraft on the Hudson River in 2009 rather than return to New York’s LaGuardia airport, seems foolhardy, desperate and, most likely, deadly. Somehow all 155 passengers and crew aboard survive, becoming part of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, but despite being afforded hero status by the public, Sully’s superiors are determined to bring him to account for what they perceive as a catastrophic error of judgement – one that only through cosmic fortune prevents carnage and a mass loss of life.
Much of the film concentrates on the internal and external conflicts that bear down on Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) in the wake of the drama. The public perception is of heroism in the shape of a man who calculatedly defied a seemingly horrible, inevitable fate. Simultaneously, we’re invited to despise the emotionless mechanism of officialdom, the multi-faced entity attempting to extol a contradictory tale that will bring this supposed hero to account for the liberties he took with so many lives resting in the palm of his hand.
Sully is naturally haunted by the scale of the near-disaster, though his convictions about the quick-fire series of decisions that led to the Hudson becoming the craft’s runway never wavers. In effect the film not only champions the man’s courage and integrity but sets up a battle between human and contrived responses to stressful, life-endangering scenarios that is at the heart of the film’s themes.
Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay is a strong one even though he’s almost duty bound to reduce elements of the accompanying stories down to their most generic constituent parts, such as pointless flashbacks to Sully’s earliest days as a pilot. Sully is sequestered in a hotel after the disaster as the inquiry nears and he attends to a brutal round of media duties. Because of this he’s unable to see his loyal wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and their subsequent phone conversions are painfully conventional back-and-forths. Other reductive scenes similarly reflect the ‘flatness’ of Eastwood’s modern style.
This style, for once, isn’t necessarily a major negative however, especially in the compelling, much anticipated final scenes as the validity of Sully’s judgment are put to the ultimate test. Here, we find out once and for all whether the fate of airborne lives is best entrusted to human instincts or flight simulator computations. These scenes are magnificently handled, playing out with an understated dignity that doesn’t detract from their intrinsic emotional power. Hanks, for all his adherence to playing saints who walk among us, is superb.