In his twilight years Clint Eastwood’s directorial career has seen the Best Director Oscar winner turn his attention to ‘based on true story’ material. From Invictus through to American Sniper Eastwood’s output these days feels like a TV movie of the week. That he chose to then make the story of Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, the man who successfully landed a plane on the Hudson River in 2009, feels a little too obvious.
After all, the problem with turning a story of this nature in the digital age into a film is most people know the full story. Or so you might have thought with Sully. Because what Eastwood does manage is to show that while the world celebrated what Sully had done, the aviation authorities questioned whether or not he, and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) had made the right decision.
If you have seen Robert Zemeckis’ brilliant Flight much of Sully feels reminiscent. A pilot who saves a plane full of people by pulling off as close to successful crash as possible. But while Flight was about an alcoholic Sully is about a genuine American hero. And who better than to play a genuine American hero than one himself Tom Hanks.
The double hander of Eastwood’s patriotic direction and Hanks’ everyman hero struggling to accept his new found fame and how the authorities cannot appreciate what he did is the key hook of Sully. Writer Todd Komarnicki’s script wisely follows a nonlinear story, jumping between hearings, press tours and the event itself to paint a picture of Sully as a man cool as a cucumber at the stick of a falling passenger plane but fazed under the spotlight of celebrity.
It doesn’t always work. Too often Eastwood’s direction feels horribly flat. Only lending to that sentiment of a TV movie. You would think that a director who learned from a master like Sergio Leone would know how to make things feel grand, even in the most intimate of settings. Instead Sully is never something to capture your imagination from a visual point of view.
At one point a character comments that, “it’s been a while since New York had news this good. Especially with an airplane in it.” That thought is incredibly evocative and Eastwood lets it hang. The bigger issue though is Sully keeps having waking nightmares of what could have been which means we see multiple versions of the crash all destroying New York buildings. Given that important statement this often feels in poor taste.
Thankfully, come the climax watching New Yorkers rally together in the face of potential tragedy is genuinely inspiring. A true miracle it isn’t but Sully is a film that tells an interesting story with a very likeable character at its centre.