Film review - Sully: Miracle on the Hudson
Tom Hanks is superb in Clint Eastwood's stirring re-telling of a true story, says our film critic
One freezing Friday afternoon in January, 2009, a man called Chesley Sullenberger achieved something many might have thought impossible. He was the captain of US Airways Flight 1549, which had just taken off from La Guardia Airport when it experienced a massive bird strike that knocked out both engines. Coasting steadily earthwards in a 90,000kg steel tube, Captain Sullenberger was faced with stark choices: instinct told him he wouldn't make it to the nearest runways in New Jersey, and he was flying over one of the most densely populated areas in the world. In a split second, he decided to land his Airbus A320 on the Hudson River.
Most of you will recall what happened next, because Sully's heroics rebounded around the world, a good news story about a man who had saved the lives of 155 passengers and crew by acting decisively, and with vision. You might wonder how an incident that was over in a couple of minutes could possibly be strung out into a feature film, but there's more to the story of Flight 1549 than that, and Clint Eastwood and his writer Todd Kormarnicki tease it out with winning skill in this lean, accomplished drama.
They are helped enormously by Tom Hanks, a man who's so good at screen acting that everyone's stopped noticing. He's the perfect choice to play Sully Sullenberger, a modest, quiet, impeccably professional man who always seemed embarrassed by the media storm that engulfed him.
When we first meet Sully he's woken up sweating in a hotel room, having emerged from a recurring nightmare in which his Airbus careers over midtown Manhattan before ploughing straight into a skyscraper. That's not what happened of course, but Sully seems to be suffering from post-traumatic stress, and that's not his only problem.
Eastwood's film begins by considering the immediate consequences of Flight 1549's spectacular conclusion before eventually getting around to recreating the incident itself. It's a dramatic tactic that serves the story well, leaving you bracing yourself for the terror you know you'll eventually have to endure.
Meanwhile there's outrage to be enjoyed, as Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are hauled before the National Transportation Safety Board, where it soon becomes clear that someone is trying to save themselves a pile of insurance money by suggesting that pilot error may have been responsible for the Hudson incident.
When a series of flight simulations indicate that it would have been possible for Flight 1549 to reach a New Jersey airfield or even return to La Guardia, Sully begins to doubt himself, and meanwhile he's being feted in the media, and his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) is finding all this sudden attention hard to take.
Like Woody Allen, with whom he hasn't a great deal else in common, Eastwood has an old-fashioned work ethic, and likes to knock out 'em out fast. As a result he's made some pretty ordinary ones in recent years, but Sully is his best since 'Gran Torino', back in 2008. It's a story that plays to his strengths: the lone American hero who says little and stares adversity flintily in the eye has been a theme of Eastwood's since time immemorial, and Sully Sullenberger is Clint's kind of guy.
But it would still have been possible to make a very dull film out of a tale that really only has two acts, and it's to Eastwood and Komarnichi's credit that they've managed to turn this into a satisfying and substantial drama.
It's perfectly paced and looks magnificent, with a scale and grandeur that perfectly fits the subject. The landing itself is superbly realised, and made me glad I won't be flying anywhere any time soon.
If I do I'd like Sully in the cockpit, and the way Tom Hanks quietly rounds out and realises his character is quite something to behold. Eckhart is very good as his loyal understudy, but Sully's success or failure is entirely dependant on the veracity of Hanks' performance: as always, he pulls it off.
Films coming soon...
The Birth of a Nation (Nate Parker, Arnie Hammer, Esther Scott, Jackie Earle Haley); I Am Not a Serial Killer (Max Records, Laura Fraser, Christopher Lloyd); Life, Animated (Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind); United States of Love (Julia Kijowska).