January 15, 2009: the date of the Miracle on the Hudson. I doubt there’s a person who reads this blog who isn’t familiar with the astonishing feat of valor and skill that was accomplished on that date and saved the lives of all 155 souls onboard. And what’s great about that is that in the several years I’ve been writing film criticism, I still can’t stand doing plot summaries, so we’ll cut right to the chase.
From the first trailer, I had my doubts and the full cynic in me dismissed it. These are the types of incredible, Oscar-bait true stories Hollywood is drawn to; so easy and risk-free they practically tell themselves, and this is probably why Todd Komarnicki was able to get away with writing it. One of his only other writing credits is still among the worst films I’ve ever seen, 2007’s Perfect Stranger, starring Bruce Willis toward the beginning of his sharp, downward trajectory in choosing quality projects. For Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks also, after making American Sniper and Bridge of Spies respectively, I had to ask, when are these two filmmaking giants going to step out of their comfort zones and make a flick where they are forced to hazard something more of themselves as artists?
Sully in this regard pretty much surpassed all my expectations. The heart and soul of the picture is of course Tom Hanks as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. He gives a beautiful, internalized performance that showcases his consummate professionalism as an actor and his dedication to getting inside a character’s headspace. During the event of the forced water landing itself, which we are shown multiple times from multiple perspectives, you truly get a sense that Hanks has really done his homework as we see the matter of life and death decision making play out on his face, and I was left with the feeling that there was absolutely no one better suited for this part. It’s a performance that captures with almost brutal honesty what it means to suffer from PTSD and Sully’s questioning, despite 40+ years piloting experience, of every second of the incident. Undoubtedly, this will go down as being worthy of mention alongside the very best of Tom Hanks’ career and one-ups a recent favorite of mine, Captain Phillips. It also helps that the chemistry feels genuine between him and notorious over-actor Aaron Eckhart (fanboys can kick and scream all they want, his Two Face in The Dark Knight was no less ridiculous than Tommy Lee Jones’), playing first officer Jeff Skiles.
For Eastwood as a director, there may be some who are quick to write this off as business as usual for him considering Sully will come between two other tales of modern American heroism. I mentioned previously American Sniper and next on his agenda is The Ballad of Richard Jewell, which will tell the story of a security guard who discovered a bomb at the 1996 Olympic games and who was later exonerated after being accused of planting the bomb himself. Although Eastwood might be getting complacent in carving himself out a niche in this particular type of filmmaking, I would have to be a pretty heartless bastard for condemning him for seeking to glorify that which is best in the human spirit and for putting these triumphs on a pedestal. And yes, I could lambast him for a lack of originality since Letters from Iwo Jima, but from a technical perspective, and after 35 features, he’s still got it. Sully reaches for greatness and near-flawlessness, and succeeds.
Everyone in their analysis is going to talk about the main event, the emergency landing on the Hudson, and they’d be right to. I don’t usually get hung up on details of format, but IMAX was undeniably the way to go and I highly recommend paying the premium for it. Having never experienced anything even remotely fear-inducing while travelling, the harrowing realism of this event when projected on the big screen is breathtaking, and even after the third time the incident is shown, I found myself still on the edge of my seat in anticipation. I’m particularly happy that Eastwood chose not to go after the easy target, the NTSB, as the bad guys. Early on it’s made clear that they are just doing their job and it’s Sully’s visions and nightmares of the horrific ways in which he could have failed that becomes the real antagonist of the show. The structure and pacing as well is tight and mostly without indulgence. A scene or two involving Laura Linney (playing Sully’s wife, Lorraine) could have stood to be scaled back a bit, but Eastwood alum Blu Murray, having worked his way up the ladder to editor from production aide starting as far back as 2002’s Blood Work, has something award-worthy and to be truly proud of here on his resume; as does everyone involved.
Thanks to Ian M. Woodington for sharing his review with PMTTP readers!