Post by Nathan Blake
“Sully is Clint Eastwood’s best film in more than a decade.”
Films where the audience goes into the experience knowing the ending are tricky. Sully is such a film that knows just how familiar the story will be for most of its audience. Therefore, it opens with a sequence that immediately plays with that knowledge. The short sequence asks, visually, what if? It’s one of two questions the film spends its brisk 96 minutes asking. The other is “how?” Those are two questions asked to Pilot Chesley “Sulley” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) after they miraculously land troubled U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009.
Most viewers will remember seeing news footage where Sully was asked those questions. What director Clint Eastwood’s film focuses on are the moments the two men had to reflect on asking themselves, and each other, “how” and “what if?”
In order to create an arc to explore those questions, the film incorporates, and takes some creative license with, the investigation into the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In order to add more tension, the investigation is made more prosecutorial in nature than many of the officials involved in the actual investigation say it was.
For their part, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki changed the names in order to protect the reputation of the real-life investigators. Many of those involved with the NTSB investigation have expressed disappointment in this aspect of the film. They are concerned that, regardless of the name changes, the portrayal of the agency’s involvement will tarnish its reputation.
I don’t think Eastwood is wrong to have taken creative license here, as the depictions of the NTSB show people who are perhaps too by-the-book, but nowhere near corrupt. The changes mainly serve to illustrate the mixed emotions and reactions people who find themselves labeled “heroes” have to contend with.
The investigation is a compelling enough arc, but what makes the film work best is the way the crash sequence is built up to, and shown, several times. We see it through the eyes of passengers, first-responders and the two men in the cockpit. The event plays repeatedly as Sully continues to face questions about why he chose the course of action he did, how he succeeded, and what would have happened if he failed.
Hanks and Eckhart work well together. Hanks takes on Sully’s calming presence, while allowing glimpses of fear and doubt to appear at just the right moments. As Skiles, Eckhart is loyal and often willing to be more abrasive in his defense of every decision made during the 208 seconds that the emergency unfolded.
In addition to a taut script, the film boasts incredible visual effects and cinematography. It is also a huge leap forward for IMAX filming. Generally reserved for big budget franchises, IMAX cameras were used to shoot most of Sully. It would be nice to see more adult-oriented entries take advantage of IMAX technology this way. I highly recommend seeing the film either in a true 70mm IMAX theater or one of the far more common digital IMAX screens. Trust me when I say the extra bucks you spend on the large format will be worth it.
Sully is Clint Eastwood’s best film in more than a decade. As usual, he has stirred up controversy. But I’m not convinced audiences will walk away from the film feeling mistrust or anger towards the NTSB. More than anything, the film comes at an opportune time to answer a pessimistic question with rare optimism.
It opens a mere two days before the 15th anniversary of 9/11; a time when many will lament that it takes a tragedy to bring us together and that the unity which existed in the days after the attacks is gone. Sully provides a much needed example that there are always events, whether the outcome is tragic or miraculous, that can bring us together to celebrate courage, duty and heroism.