Clint Eastwood has been directing films for 45 years. First of all… wow. Secondly, he specializes in small-scale stories that focus on character development and personal turmoil with the story acting as a mere backdrop. Those stories, known as Mystic River, Unforgiven, Play Misty for Me, Bird, and Million Dollar Baby are when Eastwood is most memorable as a filmmaker. But in the last decade, Eastwood has rolled the dice on occasion with a large-scale picture that tries to comment on wider-reaching subject matter. While Letters from Iwo Jima is the exception, Eastwood has slipped up when directing the musings of death (Hereafter), the two-faced man behind the FBI (J. Edgar), and what the Iraq war does to the manner of the most lethal sniper in American history (American Sniper). Eastwood’s bare bones style of filmmaking can only stretch so far with such little innovation or experimentation that he has to choose his projects carefully.
This is the dilemma of Sully, the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s miracle landing of an US Airways passenger flight on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009 after both the plane’s engines failed. While The Miracle on the Hudson wasn’t big enough to create major world events or stand as a landmark moment, it is bigger than the average hero story, so it falls somewhere in the middle of Eastwood’s range. How does Dirty Harry handle it? He tries it both ways, and it surprisingly works well.
Sully mostly takes place after the crash itself, when the plane’s captain (Tom Hanks) can’t shake off his heroic deed. He has nightmares about what would’ve happened if he didn’t make the safe landing or what the world truly thinks of him, while spending his days doing numerous press interviews away from his concerned wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney). It also doesn’t help that he and his first officer, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board to determine if landing in the Hudson could’ve been avoided. Doubt starts to set in for Sully as the movie replays the crash to explain how the whole event played out, showing the captain’s dedication to his job and asking why it’s even being brought into question.
Eastwood doesn’t direct Sully like a sappy, awards-baiting biopic it could’ve easily become. He starts off with his lens zoomed in on the captain himself, trying to remain professional and composed on the outside while almost shaking with doubt on the inside. Every time he says that he was just doing his job, it almost feels like he’s defending himself. He takes nightly runs around New York City as if to make himself think he can run away from the crash despite news coverage being everywhere from Time Square to a local bar. No matter how much praise he gets, Sully is cracking on the inside. That’s all the movie you need, and that’s where Sully excels. It’s only when Eastwood decides to paint a villain that the movie slips up, making the NTSB (also just trying to do their job) into evil business suits that seem intent on trying to make Sully a fraud. It’s Eastwood’s way of wagging a finger at modern cynicism where even the bravest of heroes can be put under a microscope by online conspiracy theorists and Fox News analysts. While it doesn’t stroke the super-jingoist ego of the U.S.A. like American Sniper did, it does start to feel like Eastwood’s using Sully as a lecture on the human heart being more worthwhile than any amount of data, especially during the film’s climax of a public hearing. Sully is best as the small story of one man with all eyes on him as he’s trying to answer for being the man behind the miracle.
This is a character study, so you’d need a hell of an actor to take 208 seconds of a plane crash and stretch it into a 95-minute movie. Fortunate, Eastwood knows how to cast a movie, and he got Tom “Mr. Can-Do” Hanks. He knocks it out of the park as Captain Sully, getting to actually play a compelling character this year (compared to last year’s Bridge of Spies where he was just “Tom Hanks as *insert historical figure here*”). Hanks doesn’t have the look of Sully, but he’s got the heart on his sleeve and lays out Sully’s emotional baggage in every scene, sometimes without even a word. Hanks has been on a quiet hot streak in the last four years (Cloud Atlas, Captain Philips, Saving Mr. Banks, Bridge of Spies) and this feels like the understated climax of that, where he dials down his charm as much as possible and really tests the depths of his emotions. Eckhart is just as good in perhaps the best role he’s gotten in six years, as the raging heart of the entire trial trying to keep Sully’s spirits up and refusing to believe there was any foul play in the crash. Linney makes a solid impression in the three to five scenes she gets in the movie, and even bit players like Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn are impressive in their minor roles.
The most interesting thing about Sully is that the actual crash is the least interesting part about the movie. It’s very well-staged, and cinematographer Tom Stern’s muted colors perfectly fit the frigid January setting, but it’s barely a part of the movie. It’s a bold decision, but one that Eastwood was wise to make to keep the focus in the right place. Sully isn’t a new career peak for Eastwood and probably won’t be mentioned on any year-end lists, but it shows Eastwood can find a sweet-spot between musings of modern life and effective character study. If this is the best of Eastwood’s current directorial abilities, then it’s damn pleasing to see an 86-year-old still be on the level of other current old-school filmmakers.