Sully - 2016

Sully - Released September 9, 2016. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger ("Sully") has to make a series of critical decisions in the space of about 35 seconds, while he is piloting a damaged airliner full of people that had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. The plane hit a flock of geese that wrecked both engines on the plane, and Sully must choose either to return to the airport, seek a different local airfield, or do what is considered extremely dangerous: land a large airliner onto water (the Hudson River by Manhattan). He decides on the last option since the other two seem impossible to reach with both engines dead.

Clint Eastwood has directed Sully to tell several stories in parallel, and we don't know exactly how it all turns out until all the threads come together at the finale. In the meantime, we see the landing on the Hudson a couple of times; we see Sullenberger's flashbacks to an earlier experience landing a damaged F4 Phantom jet decades earlier; we watch the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the water-landing, apparently convincing themselves that Sully could have made it back to LaGuardia safely and not risked everyone's life with the water landing. If Sully is found to have been negligent in his decision making, at risk is early retirement and forfeiture of his pension.

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Aaron Eckhart plays the co-pilot Jeff Skiles, and he and Tom Hanks are a duo (with Eckhart supplying handy one-liners) up against the second-guessing and mounting evidence - created through flight simulations - that flight 1549 should not have had to go into the water. Brief technical aspects of the matter are explained well. The viewer gets an overview in how air safety is handled, and how air traffic controllers are held responsible for behavior of airplanes under their command. Also on the screen is the response of New York's water and air rescue services, along with boat captains who arbitrarily joined into the rescue efforts to get the 155 passengers safely to shore.

In release at theatres, Sully was criticized for having an old-fashioned and leisurely pace as it told its story, but the film hardly seems a deviation from other films Eastwood has made over the last decades. The emphasis here is more on Tom Hanks, the crew and passengers instead of on the airplane crashing. Sully has nightmares of far worse disasters which are provided on screen; they are spectacular and should satisfy most ardent CGI-junkies. Perhaps the problem is simply an adult story told in an adult manner - in this tale there is not only the possibility of the airliner crashing and killing people, but in the aftermath with accusations mounting against Sully's decisions. We see the financial disaster that will hit his family if he loses his piloting job and pension, an emotional crisis only an adult might appreciate.

The script by Todd Komarnicki makes it possible to juggle the various threads and to keep it together until the climax when Sully and Skiles have a face-to-face showdown hearing with the NTSB. it takesplace in a large public hall that at first looks ominously like it might be a public crucifixion of the two pilots. Instead, just as the pair were a team in the damaged plane over the Hudson, the two have to maneuver through the hail of computer-generated evidence being thrown against them to show why what they did was necessary. With a tinge of mystery wrapped around the story, Eastwood makes Sully partially an adventure, partially heroic (in a very restrained way), and partially a portrait of how technology can reach its limits quickly and leave fragile humans with only decision-making and instinct as a way out. [Z]

Original Page February 2017

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