This is what all the passengers hear before US Airways Flight 1549 collides with the Hudson River, the engine blades ripping through the chilling, winter water. No one even screams, as the impact is so jarring that everyone aboard is at a loss for words. What happens next is taken directly from the account of retired airline captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates the incident.
Clint Eastwood’s Sully, starring Tom Hanks as Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeff Skiles, tells the true story about the gut-wrenching responsibility that comes with being an airline pilot. Sully, in January of 2009, was forced to emergency land an Airbus A320 holding 150 passengers after his plane was struck by birds. Hanks uses his classic dry humor to capture the humble, mentally tough persona of Sully, and Eckhart turns out to be an excellent match with Hanks. The two of them play off each other’s solemn (and occasionally humorous) moments to cultivate a strong relationship throughout the film that feels natural yet not overly casual. Eckhart gives his character a confident and brutally brash quality as he fights in Sully’s defense throughout the investigation of the crash.
The plot revolves around Sully struggling with the baseless guilt of his decision on the day of the accident — but there could have been a bit more to back up his anxious doubting, as every passenger survives. And this is what vexes me most. When Sully takes one last fleeting look into the flooded recesses of the plane, the tension is lost in this knowledge that everyone is alive. Sully spends the next few hours following the rescue effort and trying to find out if everyone survived. This would have been the perfect moment for audiences to be set on edge. Where is the suspense required for such a sequence to work? While Sully mainly focuses on the aftermath of the incident, Eastwood could have made a much more captivating film if the story’s subject matter better suited the tense experience that he was trying to convey — as is, the sense of suspense is rather limited.
Another issue has to do with several passengers’ backstories or reasons for being on that particular flight. This inclusion pushes the idea of oblivious, innocent passengers to the point of excess. Due to their perilous circumstances alone, the audience already cares about the passengers involved. Giving the passengers their own personal stories feels like screenwriter Todd Komarnicki is trying to pad the runtime with a few characters that ultimately don’t go anywhere in their development.
While the opening scene is a clichéd nightmare and flashback of the crash, the overall pacing and order of the film is easily traceable. Sully’s moments of post traumatic stress disorder and the revelations in the investigation force not just Sully, but also the audience, to question his actions. Eastwood knows what to do with the visuals of the crash sequence. He expertly uses vivid close-ups of the passengers and two pilots in order to give the viewer direct, identifiable moments of fear and adrenaline. In terms of the recreation of the crash itself, Eastwood’s use of shaky, handheld shots paired with Hank’s and Eckhart’s incredible acting creates a palpable sense of tension that lasts throughout the whole flight. Eastwood also knows when to inject dark humor into the proceedings — something that is especially well-implemented in the final line.
This film ultimately comes in with a smooth, gentle landing. Sully is quite the turbulent ride (in a mostly good way) for those viewers seeking a jarring, compelling biopic supported by heartfelt moments of trust and relief.
4 out of 5 stars