One of the nice things about entering fall is that a different crop of movies begin to emerge. Big, splashy, but often shallow blockbusters aimed at younger audiences are replaced with films aimed at older audiences that — for lack of a better way to put it — try harder to engage the masses on an intellectual and emotional level. Sully is one of those pictures, and while it is isn’t perfect, it is a refreshing change of pace.
Sully is the latest in a line Clint Eastwood-directed historical dramas, his bread-and-butter filmmaking genre for the last decade or so (in this time he has made 2006’s Flags of our Fathers, 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima, 2008’s Changeling, 2009’s Invictus, 2011’s J. Edgar, 2014’s Jersey Boys, and 2014’s American Sniper). With this picture, Eastwood recounts the relatively recent Miracle on the Hudson event; an incident in which airline captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played well in this film — but not Oscar-material well — by Tom Hanks) was forced to make an emergency landing of a plane on the Hudson river in January of 2009. While he is lauded as a hero, with everyone on board having survived the incident, Sullenberger does undergo an investigation in which his actions are heavily scrutinized. In particular, his decision to land in the Hudson is brought into question when computer models and simulations indicate that he could have safely returned to an airport instead. On top of that, Sullenberger must also deal with being in the spotlight of the press, as well as the isolation from his wife that he must undergo during the investigation.
The main thrust of the movie centers on the differing perceptions of heroism; the film presents several points of view on Sullenberger’s choices. On the one hand, various investigators see his actions as irresponsible, believing he unnecessarily put lives at risk by landing in the Hudson. On the other hand, his first officer, Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart, in a much more jovial capacity than you might expect), various passengers, and ordinary citizens of New York genuinely appreciate what he did and believe him to have done the right thing. Sullenberger himself even seems to be at least somewhat conflicted on the issue. Though he insists that he made the right decision given the situation; he nevertheless has nightmares about the incident and, when asked, says that he does not think of himself as a hero.
Adding to the idea of how heroism is perceived, the film depicts the incident itself — both the plane landing in the river and the events just prior to it — multiple times from different points of view. One is entirely from the perspective of Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeff Skiles; one is from a mixture of viewpoints — Sullenberger, Skiles, passengers on the plane, workers at the airport, and those mounting the rescue; and several computer simulations — presenting alternative decisions regarding the situation — of the event are also shown as part of Sullenberger’s investigation, which provide additional commentary on the incident.
As a side note, regarding the investigation that Sullenberger goes under, I once read a book about Clint Eastwood’s films that noted that a core theme in many of them was the lone individual against a corrupt system. That’s not entirely true here — Sullenberger isn’t actually alone, nor is the system portrayed all that corruptly — but there are certainly shades of that idea in the picture; namely, standing up for what you feel is right even when others tell you you’re wrong. Having said that, though, despite what Sullenberger goes through in the film regarding the investigation, this movie is still very optimistic. While there are different perspectives, it does, ultimately, present the plane landing and the subsequent rescue as a great example of various people coming together and achieving good in the world, and it even mentions that the knowledge that everyone made it out alive presents a message of hope for a city still reeling form 9/11. Moreover, this movie clearly has a great affection for Sullenberger, presenting him in a very positive light, and the ending does do him justice*.
Anyways, this all works pretty well; and it ties together into a timely, nicely nuanced, and appropriately mature message for this day and age: few things are black and white, no one is perfect, and no matter what good you do, you’ll always have critics; but heroes still exist, and it’s still possible to be one. It’s a good lesson, and the fact that it’s rooted in a real story helps to make the point feel more relevant in the here and now. I think that’s also partly the reason why Clint Eastwood likes historical dramas so much. More often than not, his historical dramas seem to focus on the good in people, rather than the bad. In an age where so many are resigned to amoral behavior from our leaders; and so many people that we do look up to are fictional; Eastwood seems interested in showing real people, past or present, that we can genuinely admire and who can offer us worthwhile life lessons. In other words, he seems to want to show us real heroes; and while he doesn’t always hit it out of the park each time (I don’t think very many people view Chris Kyle in a positive light, for example), I respect him for at least trying to do this; and I think he’s more successful at it than he’s given credit for. Furthermore, I would also argue that Sully is one of his better attempts at this.
Unfortunately, better does not mean perfect, and despite being overall enjoyable, there are areas where Sully does come up short. For example, there are a couple of flashbacks to Sullenberger’s youth flying planes that don’t do much for the film. I think the idea is that they are supposed to contextualize his approach to flying, but they feel very superfluous, not integrating with the rest of the plot in a meaningful way and just seeming random. Also, as I briefly mentioned earlier, there is a side plot involving Sullenberger’s wife, who is alone at their house fending off reporters and worrying about his well being while he undergoes the investigation. This, again, is somewhat underdeveloped; despite Sullenberger’s obvious concern for his wife (and vice versa), there’s never any kind of emotional climax with that arc. It just stops after a while. Additionally, the film feels somewhat truncated. At a mere 96 minutes, it feels as though it’s missing a second act. Everything resolves itself a little too quickly, in my opinion, and the ending came somewhat abruptly.
Now that I think about it, all of those issues I just mentioned are really part of a larger problem: this story, in its totality, is probably better suited for a short film/television special rather than a full length feature movie. When we get down to it, the accident and the investigation proceeding from it just don’t seem to require that much time to tell; and many aspects of the film — the flashbacks to Sullenberger’s youth, the subplot with his wife, the multiple showings of the crash itself — likely exist, at least partially, to extend the length of the movie to the bare minimum required for a film, though even that’s not enough to make this picture feel full. I suppose that’s the drawback to making movies out of real life events. While they can (as I previously noted) provide real historical/current figures to admire; reality also doesn’t always conform to the structure of a motion picture; and sometimes that means getting a story that has clearly been stretched to fill a run time. A part of me wonders how this might have turned out had all of the fat been trimmed and this been released as a 45 minute short film instead. While it likely wouldn’t have made as much money as it will as a feature; it still might have been popular given the people working on it, and its status as a short film may have made it stand out in a unique way and may even have gotten it a nomination and/or win for Best Short Film. Or maybe I’m just speculating.
All of that aside, though, I do like this movie. It has a good story and a meaningful moral, it’s topical, it’s well directed, it’s well-acted, and it really does feel unique in this current filmmaking landscape. That Eastwood took a relatively recent isolated event and was able to see the drama in it necessary to bring it to the big screen is commendable. In an age of Superhero, Science Fiction, Horror, and other such genres dominating film conversations, it’s nice to be able to see a movie like this, which is more modest in scope, more dramatic, and more thoughtful in execution. And while it does have some problems, it’s still pretty cool that this film exists. I would very much like to see more movies likes this in the coming years. If this picture is successful, it might just happen. In the mean time, if you’re not doing anything else this weekend, I recommend checking this film out.
*I don’t think that’s a spoiler, since I assume most of you heard about this story back when it actually happened.