Film Review: Sully

Pilot saves passengers of doomed flight, only to face questions during safety hearings. Vivid, riveting story of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger marks another milestone for director Clint Eastwood.
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Clint Eastwood continues his remarkable run of late-inning successes with Sully, a no-frills account of surprise hero Chesley Sullenberger. Told with documentary precision and an acute understanding of its characters, it is an intense, harrowing, ultimately uplifting movie that deserves a wide audience.

On January 15, 2009, Sully landed a crippled US Airways jet on the Hudson River, saving all 155 aboard. He became a media sensation, even while questions were raised about his decisions during the 208-second flight.

Todd Komarnicki's script (based on a memoir by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) jumps right into the incident as Sully's Flight 1549 is cleared for takeoff. Like Eastwood’s American Sniper, Sully jumps back and forth in time, sketching in details about the pilot as a teen and then in the Air Force.

Splintering the movie's timeline allows Eastwood to explain the aftermath of Flight 1549 before getting to the heart of the story. While reporters clamor for interviews, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board begin hearings that quickly take on an antagonistic tone.

Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are asked repeatedly why they didn't try to land the plane back at La Guardia Airport or at nearby Teterboro. Computer simulations suggest that the jet could have been saved. One board member suggests that the plane wasn't as disabled as Sullenberger thought.

The script hints at Sullenberger's domestic problems. His marriage with his wife Lorrie (Laura Linney) has been strained by their extended separations. Like many middle-class parents after the 2008 stock-market crash, they are overextended financially, struggling to generate enough extra income to hold onto their home.

In another strong, ego-less performance, Tom Hanks captures the tight-lipped confidence of a man who devoted his life to aviation. At the same time, Hanks shows the fears, second-guessing and panic attacks that afflicted Sullenberger after the accident.

Eastwood's recent movies have often focused on the price of fame. In Flags of Our Fathers and American Sniper, he was more interested in the aftermath of heroism than in the acts themselves. The endless demands on time, the emptiness of celebrity, the irrational hostility of peers all afflict Sully even as he tries to recover from the shock of the accident.

The movie shows in graphic detail ways that Flight 1549 could have ended differently. Sully works through the accident from several viewpoints, including air-traffic controller Patrick Harten (Patch Darragh) and ferryboat captain Vincent Peter Lombardi (one of many real-life figures to appear in the movie). As viewers learn what's at stake, each version of the flight becomes more unnerving.

Eastwood and his crew make few concessions to the IMAX format. Cinematographer Tom Stern's visuals are clear and unfussy, Blu Murray's editing calm and direct. Eastwood's style reduces every element of filmmaking—acting, editing, music—to telling the story as efficiently as possible.

"We did our job," Sullenberger says to Skiles during a break in testimony. Sully celebrates that spirit of dedication and professionalism. When artists of this caliber routinely perform at this high a level, it's easy to take their work for granted. While staying rooted firmly to its subject, Sully manages to say more about how we live than any Hollywood release this year.

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