It’s a general rule of storytelling that good tales aren’t created when things go right; they’re created when things go wrong, life goes sideways, and the suddenly scrambling protagonists must right themselves and struggle through. But what happens when your dramatic disaster is 288 seconds long and you need to fill a two-hour movie? You’d better hope you have a deeply flawed, complex hero—maybe even an antihero—to murk matters up and create a satisfying narrative. What if you don’t have that?
Welcome to “Sully”, Clint Eastwood’s second biopic focusing on a man who resembles an Eastwood character: Chelsea “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River following dual engine loss from birdstrike. The “Miracle on the Hudson” is about as close to a purely good event as can be imagined; there were no evildoers responsible for the disaster (just some unfortunately located geese), and the swift, brave, and timely reactions of the airline crew and water rescuers meant that the entire disaster was resolved with no loss of life in less than half an hour. Upon media scrutiny, the pilot and co-pilot were revealed to be stolid, upstanding professionals not given to grandstanding or colorful remarks—Captain Sullenberger (here played by Tom Hanks), upon whom most of the attention landed, was particularly modest about his achievement and seemed to want all the hubbub to die down so he could get back to work. As such, while the Miracle on the Hudson made for great, uplifting news, it makes for terrible story material—there isn’t any “there” there.
Not to be dissuaded, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki find their antagonists in the NTSB, the careful folks whose unenviable job it is to investigate plane crashes, with an eye towards avoiding future disasters and improving safety and security. What a bunch of soulless government stooges, right? What kind of blinkered bureaucratic lackey wants answers when a plane crashes? Barging forward, the film hammers home its blunt, unsophisticated message of instincts over computers, human judgement over flight simulators. We’re meant to cheer for good old-fashioned hand-on-stick flight, disregarding the obvious truth that without computers, every jet in the air would crash, and part of the reason Sullenberger was able to pull off the “Miracle” was his thousands of hours of practice logged… in flight simulators. It takes a certain resistance to the world, a moral calcification, to be inspired by this kind of obtuse rhetoric; at this rate, we can all look forward to Eastwood’s next great polemic, when he tackles pants and why the youth of America are wearing them all wrong. But I’ll go see that movie, too, because for all his limitations as a storyteller, Eastwood is a fantastic visual director, a virtuoso of tone and light and pacing and mood. He keeps the Airbus masterfully aloft for much of the movie, showing us different ways the plane could have landed—or not—in flashback and dream sequence and simulation, withholding our first glimpse at the true landing until the second act. I could have watched this movie with the sound off and been enthralled by the artful interplay of flat, reflected light, off skyscrapers and Hudson and opaque winter sky, that Eastwood uses to create a mirrored display case for the plane, a terrifying trap of cold, unforgiving surfaces. Hanks, too, deserves special commendation for working within the straight-jacket confines of Sullenberger’s character. A sort of acting Houdini, Hanks has learned to control his pupils and microexpressions so well that he can convey mortal terror and personal uncertainty even as he follows Sullenberger’s relentlessly competent decision tree, ruling out landings at LaGuardia and Teterboro until the only remaining option comes into horrifying focus. His barely banked panic until the number of survivors is revealed is humanizing, truly heroic—it’s unfortunate that the movie places so much weight on his vindication over a straw man antagonist, because Hanks doesn’t need that vindication to create a relatable, sympathetic character. More to the point, the real Captain Sullenberger didn’t need that vindication to be a hero. We all know what we saw.