‘Sully’ tells a hero’s story without fuss – or subtlety

It stars Tom Hanks and is directed by Clint Eastwood – did you expect subtlety? The best I can say about Sully is its brevity: ninety-three minutes in which Eastwood weighs the consequences of United Airlines pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s decision to land an Airbus bound to Charlotte from New York City in the middle of the icy Hudson; every safety protocol indicated that despite the plane’s collision with Canadian geese it was safe to return to La Guardia. Sully’s extraordinary instincts made him a national hero in January 2009. As in many Eastwood-starring or -directed flicks from Dirty Harry to American Sniper, Sully’s independence is questioned by bureaucrats who want the easy thing, here represented by the National Transportation and Safety Board. That’s all there is to Sully – this and the craftsmanship of a eighty-six-year-old filmmaker lighter on his feet than ever and wedded to the fable as genre of choice.

The only bits of distraction in Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay are padding devices intended to humanize: flashbacks to Sully showing grace under pressure flying jets and, in a violation of a movie told from Sully’s point of view, the travails of a father and his grown sons rushing to board the ill-fated flight. The rest of Sully is a compendium of interrogation scenes between the pilot and NTSB functionaries, comic relief offered by co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), and pathos (Laura Linney as Suffering Wife on the Phone). A skeptical NTSB can’t fathom how none of the computer simulations can replicate what Sully did that winter morning; moreover, no evidence yet corroborates Sully’s claim that the left engine also expired. Much is at stake: a decision against him could cost Sully not just the credibility he has staked on a freelance consulting gig but his pension. But Sully, played by Hanks as a man whom self-confidence has made withdrawn and prickly, as if he couldn’t be bothered explaining himself, sticks to his story. “There was no time for speculating; I had to rely on experiences, he explains to Jeff. In a scene with a red flag waving that reads FORESHADOWING, he also says, “I’m not usually accused of being a bullshitter.”

I wish Sully had been accused outright, or at least tried to bullshit; Hanks is often good at flicking dry pellets of sarcasm. It would’ve been a different movie, of course, and this adaptation is one already itself accused of bullshitting about the NTSB’s prosecutorial zeal. To be fair to Eastwood, the robots have hearts of gold after all – how could they not? Millions know the story. More compelling is his recreation of the crash itself. With no music or, apart from those damn tourists, look-ma-I’m-acting, Eastwood shows how flight attendants’ determined professionalism and Sully’s split second decision as emanations from a shared work ethic. Training is not commensurate with experience, as Eastwood subtly underlines: the crew’s only heard “Heads down, stay down” in school while it’s Sully’s acquaintance with the rhythms of ailing jets and the vagaries of air pressure that allow him to beat any simulation coughed up by a computer. Eastwood, who’s directed two dozen films indebted to the terseness of Anthony Mann and mentor Don Siegel, is a product of experience and training.

Having reached this pitch of anxiety, Sully marches towards its predetermined conclusion: an exonerated hero, head high on his way to a lucrative book deal. There’s something to Eastwood’s doggedness. Year in and out he makes these pictures with relatively low budgets that are no more than what you see onscreen; second looks don’t reveal subtleties. Their strength is saying what they mean. Their weakness too. In September Sully became his second highest grossing opening weekend, surpassed only by 2015’s megahit American Sniper. No other director in film history has made so many hits at his age – and keeps having them. Audiences get it. While Sully “feels like a gloss on a richer study,” as Nick Davis remarks, a complex film would have conflicted with Eastwood’s commercial instincts. Hey – next November we may not even have an NTSB.

GRADE: B

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