Few settings are as ripe for moral dilemmas as a cockpit: so many lives, so much responsibility. Director Robert Zemeckis’ underrated 2012 drama Flight presented a curious hypothetical. What if the pilot flying your plane was three sheets to the wind? And what if, because of their altered state of consciousness, after encountering a mechanical failure entirely not their fault they had the confidence to pull off an audacious move that ultimately saves all the passengers lives?
Director Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully scrutinises the real-life Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) who was stone-cold sober when, in January 2009, he performed an extraordinary emergency landing. After both engines of the Airbus he was piloting carked it, Sully gauged that landing at an airport was impossible and hedged his bets on crashing into the Hudson River. All his passengers’ lives were saved, if a little shaken, in the so-called ‘Miracle on the Hudson’.
That spectacular stack into the water is a scene rendered so vividly – with such visceral, lump-in-your-throat impact – it becomes almost like a character in Eastwood’s forensic style film, which is structured around investigations into the Cap’s conduct by the National Transportation Safety Board. The director returns to it, observing the scene from multiple angles and bathing it in different light, literal and otherwise, as if it might behave in multiple ways depending on the observer.
Sully is so hinged on this single event, the screenplay written by Todd Komarnicki (based on a book co-written by Sullenberger himself) borders on experimental in its structure. Eastwood is by-and-large a straight-shooting director whose films often don’t have much in the way of narrative embroidery. Here he shows a degree of playfulness, fleshing out the central scene in extended flashbacks and factoring in short dramatic moments revealed to be dreams or hallucinations.
Tom Hanks is a deft hand at calm-under-fire, with a twang of old-timey, James Stewart valour about him.
Much of the story revolves around the question of whether or not Sully’s actions were irresponsible. The presumably small portion of viewers who aren’t already aware of its findings will likely get the most out of the experience. When it soars, the film is about the difficulties of defining heroism. In an industry (aviation) of necessarily complicated checks and balances, and where media are poised to jump from one hysterical label to another, it’s an interesting question asked in a dramatic context.
Hanks is a deft hand at calm-under-fire, with a twang of old-timey, James Stewart valour about him. Eastwood’s direction is taut and pressure-packed and Sully has a concentrated energy to it that for the most part delivers a satisfying film. The special effects are scarily good. Tom Stern’s sharp, impressive cinematography is colour graded in a steely and almost sterile way, matched to the clean grey of Sully’s hair.
But Eastwood cannot resist flag-waving and sentimentalism, ultimately undermining the story’s currency as one about shared, rather than parochial values. The ending is also a problem but to discuss it is impossible without flying into spoiler land. Suffice to say, the challenge in defining a hero is not just the core theme of the film; it is also an internal problem Eastwood struggles to find a solution for.
Just as diagnosing a villain cannot be as simple as analysing broken protocol, that logic cuts both ways when it comes to defining nobility: which is to say, a computer or algorithm won’t cut it. Run all the simulations you want, Eastwood appears to be saying, I know a hero when I see one, so…let me just run another simulation to prove it. The subtlety of Sully ultimately nosedives. Watching it collect velocity en route, however, is a rewarding experience, with quite a bit to ponder before its final ditch, idiot-proof explainer.