Saturday 17 September 2016

Movie Review: Sully (2016)

A dramatization of the 2009 miraculous landing of a civilian airliner on the Hudson River, Sully delves into the aftermath at the personal level, as the captain is thrust into a maelstrom of attention from an astounded world and befuddled officials.

It's January 2009 in New York City. Veteran airline Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are dealing with the chaotic immediate aftermath of the "Miracle on the Hudson", where Sully landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River after losing both engines due to a bird strike soon after takeoff from LaGuardia airport. All 155 passengers and crew on-board were saved relatively unharmed, plucked from the aircaft wings by boats that rushed to the rescue within minutes.

While Sully is being feted as a hero and the media is in full frenzy mode, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launches an investigation. There are whispers that one of the engines was maybe still functional, and that Sully could have made it safely back to LaGuardia instead of attempting a dangerous water landing. Meanwhile back home Sully's wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) can only communicate with Sully over the phone and is dealing with the media camped on her driveway. Sully starts to question whether he did the right thing, as the enormity of his achievement sinks in and the investigation escalates with some surprising simulation results.

Directed by Clint Eastwood and based on Sullenberger's book, Sully is a compact 96 minute story-behind-the-story drama focusing on the personal impact of an astonishing event that made global headlines. The safe water landing on the Hudson is stranger than fiction, so Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki wisely focus on the emotional burden that comes with an unexpected and overwhelming achievement.

The landing itself is recreated with care and presented with marvelous timing, key moments interspersed with the unfolding post-event confusion. Without delving into melodrama, Eastwood finds the awe-inspiring power of quiet heroism as Sully, the passengers and the rescuers come together and play their unscripted parts to make unintended history on the Hudson River.

Beyond the events on the river, the film tackles themes related to what makes a hero, and society's facile rush to attach simple labels to complex situations. Sully is keenly aware that a lifetime of flying experience came together in a few seconds in the air, his instincts kicking in to do the right things in the right order at the right time. But his self-awareness is such that he equally recognizes the thin line between success and failure.

The film does stretch to find pseudo-villains, and unfairly maligns NTSB officials into confrontational and adversarial roles. This is Eastwood unfortunately seeking the black hats in a story that did not need them, in the process taking away from the strength of the event itself and its already immense psychological aftermath.

Tom Hanks finds another perfect fit in the role of Chesley Sullenberger, a well-respected man able to rise above a situation that can easily crush the psyche. Hanks brings forth Sully's reserved dignity, never descending into any level of cheap engagement, and remaining grounded as he grapples with self-reflection. Aaron Eckhart has to decide whether the river landing or a bushy mustache represents the greater threat, but nevertheless provides solid support.

Sully never stops questioning his own actions, while sharing the credit with Skiles, the flight attendants, the passengers who remained mostly calm, and the rescuers who rushed to the scene. While the captain played the most prominent role, ultimately it took the efforts and actions of a group to create a real life miracle on a freezing cold January day.

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