Sully review: Eastwood’s drama is turbulent, but Tom Hanks nails the landing
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger landed a plane on the Hudson River in New York. Both its engines had been destroyed after the aircraft hit a flock of geese just 3 minutes into the flight. There were 155 souls on board. It was all over in 208 seconds.
Everything you need to know about Clint Eastwood’s new film – his first since American Sniper, a movie it shares many similarities with (but more on that later) – is in the title.
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It is, as most Eastwood films are – especially the more recent ones – blunt, unfussy, melodramatic, efficient. Sully, the film, explores the meaning of heroism in the modern world – or at least, it tries to. And what it finds is that not much has changed in the many centuries since tales of bravery and selflessness have been told. Some heroes work behind desks. Others land airliners on rivers.
There is more to Captain Sully’s act of heroism than the emergency landing. In January 2009, America was in the middle of two wars, millions of people were out of work and the economy had just suffered its most devastating blow in 75 years. It was January 15, just two weeks into the new year. Reading those headlines about a ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ gave the people something valuable: Hope. But at what cost?
A post 9/11 America is no place for innocence. An investigation is initiated. It’s purpose: To blame Sully for endangering the lives of those he saved. So let’s talk about Eastwood’s continued exploration of heroism. Sully can easily be a thematic successor to American Sniper – that film also featured a man being tried for his actions - and a cousin to Denzel Washington-starrer Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis, who coincidentally directed Tom Hanks in another famous plane crash sequence in Cast Away. Both films feature strong antiheroes – especially Flight, with its post-crash trials, is strikingly similar.
But there is some turbulence.
Like most things, melodrama works fine if done well. But it’s also the one thing that keeps Sully from soaring. Eastwood, over the last 15 years or so (at a guess, since Mystic River) has developed an unmistakable style that can only be described as… workmanlike – no frills, no nonsense. Just some solid filmmaking. But even he can’t elevate ordinary writing, which is what happens here. A fair chunk of the film, mostly around the hour mark, is plain bad – too spelled out, too on the nose, too ham-fisted, too (add your favourite idiom here).
Also, spare a thought for poor Laura Linney, whose only co-star in this film is a landline telephone. Her character is given next to nothing to do, and borders on being a parody of itself – the much ridiculed worrying wife. And it would be unfair to blame it on her, but her scenes single-handedly crash the film, which is mostly enjoyable, thanks in no small part to the otherwise excellent acting.
Tom Hanks is, and always has been, the real American hero – at least in the movies. He can nail roles like this in his sleep. No one but Tom Hanks could’ve played Sully like this – confident yet never cocky, humble but never cloying. There are many scenes in which the film is threatened with dual engine failure, but Hanks is the captain who lands it safely.
But the biggest star of the film – and Eastwood knows this – is the IMAX. Sully is first film to be shot almost entirely with IMAX cameras, and they’re so proud of this that they’re using it as a tagline on the poster (no kidding, go check). It’s slightly ironic that it wasn’t Christopher Nolan or JJ Abrams or Michael Bay who achieved this unprecedented feat, the vocal advocates of the format that they are, but the visually unremarkable Clint Eastwood.
While they say most of the film is shot in IMAX, unless the sight of the pores on Tom Hanks’ skin excites you, chances are that the only time you’ll appreciate the full potential of the format is during the terrific crash sequence - which Eastwood gives you three times. He teases it throughout the film, Rashomon-style, from different perspectives. He builds up to it, only to stop short, or to cut away – until the end.
The final few minutes of Sully are exhilarating. It’s what the film has been surging towards. Watching it unfold on that huge screen was incredible. The sounds, the images, the atmosphere envelopes you.
And then, another curious thing happened. There was applause – not hooting or whistling – but real applause - genuine, respectful, appreciative and very uncommon.
And here’s the special IMAX trailer