We need a hero
An intense and moving modern-day biopic
One of the most storied events of recent times, an occasion for rare heroic triumph, came when pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully and safely landed a stricken jet airliner on the Hudson River in January 2009. Sully, with Tom Hanks in the title role, revisits that event in ways that are both compact and complex, and unexpectedly moving as well.
Scripted by Todd Komarnicki (with a nod to the memoir written by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) and directed by Clint Eastwood, the film gives a genuinely riveting account of the landing itself while also developing multifaceted “inside views” of the event and its aftermath, including some of the more personal aspects of the pilot’s experience.
It’s an intense kind of action film while Sully’s plane is in the air and/or on the Hudson, but a sizable portion of the film’s dramatic power resides in the scenes of Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) facing off with investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. While the brilliantly rendered in-flight and landing sequences have something like the power of gloriously recovered memory, the most intricately sustained moments of suspense arrive via the pilots’ climactic confrontations with NTSB investigators and their seemingly condemnatory computer simulations of the landing.
The NTSB scenes produce a brief, pungent lesson or two about the value of “the human factor,” and the film comes across, in part, as a series of off-handed reflections on heroes and heroism, and what they might mean for actual human beings, ordinary and otherwise. Sully himself seems both exceptional and ordinary here, and his insistence that the hero laurels belong to everyone involved in that emergency landing and subsequent rescue seems fundamental to the Eastwood/Komarnicki version of his story.
For this movie’s “Sully,” a significant part of modern-day heroism is also a matter of maintaining personal integrity and moral perspective while navigating the convoluted entanglements of contemporary society and culture. There may be some fuel for political disputes in all that, but none of it matches the emotional intensity and conviction that the film brings to its cameo portraits of individuals (an air traffic controller, for example) who are only tangentially involved in the airliner’s emergency, but feel a bone-deep connection all the same.
I’ve held off from calling Sully a “Clint Eastwood movie,” partly because it’s so much more than what a great many people might assume with a film given that label, and partly because Eastwood’s conspicuously obtuse public pronouncements are unworthy distractions from the quality of his work as a director. Anyway, Sully is one of his best.