Superhero films are about a dime a dozen these days, the caped crusaders battling it out on the big screen and saving people like it’s simply an everyday occurrence. Amidst all the flashy CGI and awesome action though, we sometimes forget that it doesn’t always take idealised characters to pull off such extraordinary acts. That is where Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic Sully (2016) comes in, delivering us what could arguably be the seventh superhero film of 2016, detailing the complexities of the event the world dubbed the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’. Despite the obvious outcome of the titular character’s quick judgement, just like the heroes in Captain America: Civil War (2016) or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), our real-life protagonist was measured on how he executed his good deed, instead of simply the fact that he did. Like the line goes, he’s had forty years in the air, but in the end he’s going to be judged on 208 seconds. And judged he was.
For those that don’t know the story, on January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1459 left New York’s LaGuardia airport on its way to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, where it was set to stop over before flying on to Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Just three minutes into the flight and only 2,800 feet into its ascent, a flock of Canadian geese struck the plane causing critical engine loss. As the aircraft began to lose altitude Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) considered their options to return to LaGuardia Airport, land at nearby Teterboro airport or make the difficult decision to ditch the airliner off Midtown Manhattan in the Hudson River. They chose the latter. All 155 souls on board, including 150 passengers, 3 crew and 2 pilots survived the forced water landing of the Airbus A320, evacuating the partially submerged plane as it began to sink into the river, before being rescued by a number of nearby watercraft. In the days after the crash however, the National Transportation Safety Board began to look for a scapegoat amidst claims a safe landing could indeed have been possible at either of the nearby landing strips, leaving everyone wondering whether the right choice was indeed the one made.
Sully is a complex tale that develops from a seemingly clear-cut event. While many would simply see the incident as the act of heroism it is, director Clint Eastwood takes the opposite approach, sowing the seeds of doubt as to whether a safer and more viable option was available and turning achievement into government persecution. Over 35 films as director Eastwood has developed a tendency to villainise one group to ensure the valour of another and in a film that sees one man almost singlehandedly save 154 others, it’s run its course as a petty payoff. Heroes do not always need to be torn down to rise to victory, sometimes their actions alone are triumph enough. Eastwood instead panders to the politics, with an extraordinary individual targeted by those in power simply for being himself. One is left to wonder just how much better the story could have been had it been anchored in the psychological trauma those involved were left to deal with.
While for the most part Sully launches well and lands strongly, that’s not to say there isn’t some turbulence along the way. For one, it suffers technical problems in the position of the highly anticipated crash scene. Opening with a clichéd ‘what if’ scenario to get us on edge, Eastwood saves his big reveal until halfway through the movie, making us wade through forty-five minutes of flashbacks and frenzied fame until we reach the inevitable climax. What’s worse though is that Eastwood recounts the scene again nearly cue for cue in the final moments of the film, taking away all the original impact and alienating the humanity he was trying so hard to invoke. That being said, considering audience members not only know the crash is coming but also its positive outcome, Eastwood works his magic to make it adrenaline pumping and heart-hammering, as we tense on the edge of our seats and pray we never have to go through similar events.
Incredible acting is arguably what holds the broken pieces of the film together, with both leading men doing an outstanding job and giving their utmost to honour their real-life counterparts with genuine emotion and charisma. While screen veteran Hanks boasts an effortless charm as the moustachioed, white haired hero, Eckhart manages an unshowy and unassuming turn as Sully’s support act, deserving just as much praise and acclaim. The remainder of the cast is solid too, rounded out by some acting greats, including Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley and Laura Linney. Although their performances are relegated to burn in the background, they are nuanced and tempered, bringing understated warmth to the film. It’s a shame therefore that Eastwood isn’t as generous with their time as he could have been. I mean, there has never been a more apt phrasing for Linney’s role than that of ‘phoned in’.
The shortest film Eastwood has directed to date, Sully is a portrait of how important humanity is to some of society’s most devastating catastrophes and near-misses. From the cabin crew who remain calm and call out commands, to the air traffic controllers, ferry operators and pilots who made crucial, split-second decisions that saved lives. You don’t have to be a superhero to work together. You don’t have to be a superhero to care about one another. No line from the screenplay paints the film’s picture better though than when you are brought to the realisation that New York is so often devoid of good news, especially when it comes to planes. Despite its flaws, Sully pulls no punches in hitting home just how heroic one man can be. If only Eastwood had done as good a job as Captain of the film, maybe all the cinemagoers would walk away feeling it a miracle, instead of simply a moving tribute.
Rating: 3 Window Seats out of 5
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