Sully (2016)

After American Sniper, I really wasn’t sure if I was going to watch this, especially as it’s a film about a relatively inconsequential event. This one does have something like 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Tyler Cowen named it as one of the year’s best films, not just an important one. Combined with the fact that it’s likely an undemanding watch, I decided to throw it into the rotation.

The film starts shortly after the emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549 as the official investigation of the events get underway. The NTSB seems to take an antagonistic stance towards Captain Sullenberger and suggest that even though the media and the general public hail him as a hero, his decision to direct the plane into the Hudson River was a mistake. His copilot Jeff Skiles and the pilots’ union are behind him and we watch the accident unfold from multiple perspectives, including that of the air traffic controller in charge of the flight. At the same time, Sullenberger has to deal with intense pressure from the media and is unable to meet with his family while the investigation progresses in New York.

One difficulty with a film like this is that everyone knows exactly what happened that day so there isn’t much in the way of surprises. Eastwood deals with this by doling out the choicest scenes of the crash itself slowly over the course of the film. It’s a predictable move but it’s an effective one as you look forward to seeing more and more of what happened every time they return to a flashback of that day. Given that the dramatic events take place only within a few minutes, the film has the space to tell the whole story with lots of detail and I really enjoyed how intricate every bit of it is. One of my favorite scenes is when the union representative show up to provide Sullenberger and Skiles with toiletries and fresh clothes because everything that they had on them went down with the plane and their homes are far away. I think it feels very cathartic to include these quiet moments that show the characters unwinding and processing the trauma that they’ve just survived.

A less enviable way that is used to inject drama into the film is to set up the NTSB as the villains, motivated only by a vague suggestion that the airline and the insurance company are upset over Sullenberger’s actions having cost them a plane. A cursory reading suggests that any such hostility is wildly exaggerated and indeed the film makes the government officials look incompetent. From what I understand, one reason that the air transport industry has such an excellent safety record is precisely that incidents are investigated with an eye towards uncovering the truth and not towards allotting blame. My wife commented that Eastwood loves to make films with a patriotic message and who could find fault the relatively innocuous spin that New Yorkers are cheered to wake up to some good news for once. Still, having Sullenberger stand up and declare that this was a team effort was a bit too much of a Hollywood moment for me.

One of the things that impressed me most about this film is Tom Hanks’ acting. Hanks is obviously a huge celebrity with an instantly recognizable face yet in this film you don’t see Hanks at all but Sullenberger. It’s really quite remarkable. Overall I found this to be a fine film and a near textbook example of how to put a real life event on the screen. Whatever Eastwood’s personal politics, there’s no faulting his technical skills as a director and his flair for telling a decent story.

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