Sully (M). Director: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Tom Hanks, Laura Linney. 96 minutes
On 15 January 2009, US Airways pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger successfully executed an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in New York, after both engines on the passenger jet he was flying were disabled following a collision with a flock of geese shortly after takeoff. Miraculously, and thanks largely to the veteran pilot's razor instincts and resourcefulness, all 155 passengers and crew on board escaped the ordeal all but unscathed.
This is the kind of real-life heroism Hollywood 'true stories' are made of, and it was surely only a matter of time before the story of US Airways Flight 1549 got the big screen treatment. As director, Eastwood has delivered a lithe, gripping and utterly humane take that demands viewing in a theatre.
The incident itself is portrayed in near forensic detail — repeatedly, from multiple perspectives, and with epic and immersive realism (aviophobics might best stay away). When the plane makes its impact with the water, we feel the thud. During the aftermath, we share the anxiety and claustrophobia of the passengers as they attempt to exit the sinking craft, without succumbing to the panic that might rightly accompany such a near disaster.
At the same time we marvel at the level headedness of the flight crew, as they direct traffic and enact proper procedure. They, we clearly see, are as heroic as Sully; a point that the film underlines later on.
But it is the human stories and character building that make Sully memorable. At an economical 96 minutes, the film sees these deftly woven around the action.
We fist meet Sully (Hanks in a deeply nuanced and emotionally resonant performance) the day after the incident, when he is already plagued by doubts and imagining (and dreaming) of how differently things might have turned out.
"We are shown just enough of the lives of some of the passengers on the flight to be invested in their humanity, and reminded of what is at stake."
He is also already being hailed by strangers as a hero; this stands in contrast to the safety bureau investigators who question his decision making, presenting him with data that suggests there may have been a better, safer course of action to the one he took. These only feed Sully's barely contained self-recriminations.
There are other, smaller human touches that are equally as effective. We are shown just enough of the lives of some of the passengers on the flight to be invested in their humanity, and reminded of what is at stake. We spend brief, poignant moments with the air traffic controller who tries to direct Flight 1549 to safety, and then thinks he's failed. He has time to reflect at length, in isolation, on the loss of life he believes has just occurred under his watch; there is no TV in the room he has chosen and so he at first misses the story's happy outcome. These touches enhance the film without cluttering it.
In fact the only real clutter from a narrative perspective comes during the final act, in the form of a seemingly obligatory court room scene that comes with a clunk rather than a crescendo. A more elegant ending would have served Sully better. Sill it's not enough to sully what is otherwise a very good film.
Tim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.