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Sticks the Landing

Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks
Warner Brothers
 96 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by:  Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart

Clint Eastwood, who has mastered virtually every sort of challenge in his acclaimed 45-year directing career, nonetheless had to face a new test in his latest film, Sully. In bringing the story of the heroic airline pilot, Chesley Sullenberger to the big screen, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki had to keep their audience interested and involved in a five-minute event that took place only a few years earlier and whose outcome everyone already knew very well. With the help of the near perfect casting of Tom Hanks in the lead role, they managed to do so with the same amount of skill that Sully demonstrated in landing his plane.


That landing, as most people probably recall, took place, not on a runway, but in the middle of the Hudson River shortly after a US Airways flight piloted by Sullenberger took off from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. Sully managed to land the plane in one piece and get all 155 passengers and crew to safety without a single fatality. It was an almost unheard of rescue in aviation history and a welcome boost to the people of the City of New York, who still had vivid memories of a far worse aviation disaster in 2001.


Most fictional movies about stricken aircraft trying to get to safety try to drag out the will-they-or-won’t-they suspense as long as possible, making the audience agonize over whether the plane will land safely and which of the passengers will make it through unscathed. Unfortunately, Eastwood and Komarnicki were not working with a clean slate here, and there were limits to how they could portray the actual flight, which only lasted a total of 20 minutes from takeoff to rescue of all the passengers. Somewhat surprisingly, they don’t try to present a full-length biography of Sullenberger (portrayed by Hanks); instead they limit themselves to two flashback scenes to Sully’s distant past. Those two scenes, however, are enough to demonstrate Sully’s professional commitment and his skill.


Similarly, Sully doesn’t waste much time on that other staple of disaster films, the passenger and crew biographies. There are two brief airport scenes, one involving a father and his two sons en route to a golfing vacation, and the other an elderly woman, but, otherwise, the passengers are faceless extras. Realistically, the events of the landing and rescue happened so quickly that there would be little time to showcase the passenger reactions, so audiences are saved the familiar “we’re all going to die” panic.


Indeed, what Sully demonstrates is competence under extreme pressure. Sully, his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), whom Sully met for the first time shortly before the landing, and the flight attendants all go through the necessary steps almost unemotionally, as if they were practicing a drill (as the clip below demonstrates). As soon as they realize that a flock of geese has struck the engine, Sully and Skiles pull out the manual and go through the checklist calmly. Instead of screams and panic, the attendants repeat in unison for passengers to keep their heads down. As the various air traffic controllers give Sully his options on different airports at which to land, he makes his decision not to risk a crash in crowded Manhattan. The very fact that Eastwood delivers these scenes in as low key a manner as possible is, in its own way, as fascinating to watch as the usual disaster film chaos.


Sully is one of Eastwood’s shortest films, clocking in at a crisp 96 minutes, primarily because there’s nothing more that needs to be said. During those 96 minutes, the aircraft landing and its aftermath are shown four different times, twice of those in dream sequences in which Sully imagines a disastrous landing. Although none of those recreations follows the events all the way through, the net effect of all of them is to realize just how well Sully and his crew (and the rescue personnel) performed and how really fortunate the passengers and crew were to have someone like him in command.


However, those segments comprise about a half hour of the movie, and, for the rest, Eastwood and Komarnicki dwell on the aftermath of the landing. Part of this involves the heroic adulation and acclaim for Sully, and the pilot’s humble attempts to keep a low profile (there’s a great segment of Hanks and Eckhart “appearing” on an episode of David Letterman). Other sequences touch on the PTSD that Sully faced afterwards (as exemplified by his nightmare scenarios), and still others show the reaction of Sully’s wife (Laura Linney) at home to the news. This material, especially the couple of domestic scenes with the badly underutilized Linney, needed more screen time to really be effective. Instead, it serves to slow the film down. These scenes show the relatively inexperienced screenwriter at his most leaden.


Komarnicki is on surer ground with a safer dramatic, but more controversial from a historical perspective, topic. In real life, Sully faced a National Traffic Safety Board inquiry into the crash months after the feact. The issue was whether or not the landing in the Hudson River was necessary or whether Sully could have instead flown to one of the nearby airports. The entire matter was a rather routine example of mandatory government bureaucrats coming to an obvious solution. But, with Sully and all his passengers out of danger early in the movie, the filmmakers needed something to occupy the remaining hour of the film.


As a result, the script rewrites history significantly, moving the inquiry to mere days after the landing and positioning the NTSB members as prosecutorial zealots out to punish someone for what was obviously a freak accident. The real suspense here isn’t the outcome, which everyone knows, but, rather, how Sully is able to clear his name and put the bureaucrats in their place. And I have to say it worked, in large part because of Tom Hanks. All Eastwood had to do was point the camera and let Hanks be Hanks, and the sequence provides all the emotional satisfaction the film needs.


One aspect of the movie that should not be overlooked is the technical proficiency. Clint Eastwood is best known as an actor’s director, but he has mastered the technical aspects of the profession as well. He and a talented group of effects people use CGI the right way, not to destroy worlds but to depict real life events in a way that has hitherto been impossible with previous effects technology. Eastwood lets the audience see just how amazing an aeronautical feat Sully’s landing was.


Normally, I am not a fan of manipulating historical material in a supposed true story simply to make it more dramatic. But, in this case, Eastwood and Komarnicki rewrote history to provide the drama and, more important, the emotional release this film would otherwise have lacked. Sully is not Eastwood’s best work, but it is an example of his craftsmanship and further evidence that his directorial skills have not diminished even as he approaches 90 years old. Sully, Eastwood, and Hanks are proof that skill and excellence in a profession can increase with experience, not dwindle with age.  

In this scene, Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart assess their situation on the crippled plane.

Read other reviews of Sully:


Sully (2016) on IMDb