An Everyman of Substance....
If you have followed my dispatches from the Telluride Film
Festival, you already know that ‘Sully’, the movie about the ‘crash’
landing of an airliner in the Hudson River, was one of my favorites of the
Festival. With ‘Sully’ opening
nationwide this weekend, I thought I would circle back and offer a more nuanced
analysis of just WHY it was both a favorite of mine and of festival audiences
as a whole.
So here we go: why is ‘Sully’ such a good movie? For me, there are three reasons:
1: The Story
Certainly this is a story of heroism, of competence under pressure, of human emotion in extreme situations and of the happy ending that resulted from the efforts of many people. That is a pretty good start for any movie – and had the story stopped there, it might still have been successful. But director Clint Eastwood, working from a script by Todd Komarnicki, went well beyond the simple story of the landing and the rescue. With that story as the framework, Eastwood dug deeply into the personal and emotional stories of the individuals involved, particularly Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, his co-pilot Jeff Skiles and his wife Lorraine.
In these personal stories – and to a lesser extent those of the rest of the crew and passengers – Eastwood has a context for engaging the audience in the story behind the story. A potential plane crash is something that deeply impacts those involved – whether they were on the plane, flying the plane, or waiting at home for their loved ones to return. Layering the story as he does, Eastwood brings us deeply and personally into the lives of the people involved. We care much more about the outcome because we become invested in the lives of the participants.
2. The Telling
Once again, Eastwood proves himself to be one of the most skillful filmmakers at work today by resisting the impulse to tell just the ‘big story’ (the crash and rescue), rather taking the story well beyond the obvious. Eastwood does this in several ways. First, as noted above, he takes us into the lives of the participants. Whether focusing on Sullenberger and his relationship with his wife and family, or showing us the back-stories of many of the passengers, Eastwood draws us in and makes us care more deeply.
Second, the film sets up a parallel story of conflict between bureaucracy and the individual. When computer analysis demonstrates that the plane could have made it back to LaGuardia Airport, its point of origin, Sullenberger is forced to defend his actions. This becomes a taut conflict between David and Goliath, which is always an engaging technique. That David will win is a foregone conclusion, but it is a tense couple of hours getting there.
And finally, Eastwood goes inside the heads of his characters to portray the guilt, anxiety, doubt and, ultimately, resolution and competence, of Sullenberger and his crew. The film begins with a scene of Sullenberger crashing the plane into a New York City high rise, cum 9/11. It is a horrifying dream sequence that takes us inside Sully’s head, and helps us to appreciate the delicate balance of experience, skill and decision-making that could, in a matter of second, have taken the entire situation from success to disaster. This ‘inside view’, played against the ‘outside view’, has the audience consistently on the edge of their seats.
3. The Acting
I have so far given director Eastwood a lot of credit – and he deserves it. But none of what he has created would be possible without the exceptional performances of the actors, led by Tom Hanks as Sully. Hanks IS Sullenberger – from his quiet competence to his nagging doubt to his ultimate confidence in and vindication of his actions. He provides the foundation upon which the story can be built. It is perhaps Hanks' best performance in many years, and will surely earn him an Oscar nomination.
But ‘Sully’ is not a one-man show. As his co-pilot, Aaron Eckhart is outstanding in a difficult supporting role. Simultaneously cheerleader, conscience and foil, Eckhart brings the perfect mix of youth and experience to the role. It is clear that, as the 200+ seconds of time between the bird strike that destroys the planes’ engines and the landing in the Hudson tick off, Eckhart’s Skiles is terrified. But inside that terror is hope, reflected in his admiration and respect for Sullenberger. Eckhart does this masterfully.
On the home front Laura Linney, as Sullenberger’s wife, is excellent but underutilized. Linney is such a good actress that making her the ‘harpy at home’ is a shame. But she does it and does it well. The emotional impact of tragedy narrowly avoided is a big part of this story, and Linney must represent all of those left behind. And then, once the rescue is complete, she must further endure the highs of Sully’s instant celebrity and the lows of his prosecution for having – possibly – done it all wrong. Were she given more to do, the story would be even more powerful. But that may be nitpicking.
In summary, this is an outstanding film on many levels. After a summer of – let’s face it – junk at the movies, it is time to go out and really enjoy an evening in the theater. ‘Sully’ provides just that.