“We’re going to be in the Hudson.”
Few aviation quotes are as pithy and memorable as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s. After a birdstrike took out the engines moments after takeoff, the seasoned veteran looked for the longest, flattest, straightest area he could to bring his plane down as it slowly lost altitude. The whole incident, from take-off to safe landing, took only a few minutes, and occurring in the media capital of the world quickly became internationally celebrated as the “Miracle on the Hudson”.
Yet behind that quote is a man, who along with his co-pilot and crew managed to keep things from going very wrong indeed. It’s absolutely no surprise that it’s Tom Hanks who proves perfect in bringing this story to life, having already made another famous aeronautic quote, “Houston, we have a problem”, so easily connectable with a wide audience.
I think it’s fair to say that this is the best film we’re going to get about this situation. It tackles the few seconds from myriad of angles, even twisting memories into “what could have been”, showcasing the decision making that resulted in this remarkable situation. It’s impossible not to connect the imagery with shots from 9/11, a counterpoint to aircraft being used as weaponry, showing how a plane avoiding catastrophe could bring a city together.
Clint Eastwood is famed for his brisk shooting speed and no-nonsense attitude, and to the film’s credit for the most part that type of style works. Without a committed cast anchored by Hanks and supported by Aaron Eckhart in particular the film would feel maudlin and exploitational, yet one is drawn into the situation effectively and emotionally as we witness the terse interactions between pilots and ground controllers as the seemingly impossible is pulled off.
Where the film gets almost predictably unbalanced, given the political and aesthetic proclivities of its director, is that there needs to be good guys and bad guys at play. Sully is the unsullen hero, the man ravaged by self-doubt yet provably perfect in his execution. The government, in the form of the NTSB investigators, seem intent in bringing down this good man (the white hat, as it were), the iconic lone figure standing up to institutions that wish to make mockery out of true heroism in favour of bureaucratic banality.
Then there’s a fretting Laura Linney playing Lorraine, Sully’s wife. It’s another playbook from the likes of Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, but despite the thin character drawn on the page she manages to inject some life into the role. The same can’t be said of Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn, who succumb to their structural place in the film rather than elevating their characters with glimpses of humanity. Granted they have little to work with as well, yet it seems so needlessly confrontational and trite to simplify the us-vs-them, amplified by performances that felt more soap-operatic than anything else.
Still, the film looks pretty, the plane scenes are effectively thrilling and unsettling at the same time. Hanks manages to wrangle the character into complexities that the film otherwise eschews, showing both the strength and torment that comes from pulling off such an endeavour.
Sully may be flawed as a film, but it’s effective and likely to be crowd pleasing. Further, while it stumbles along the way it does seem to do justice to the core precept, that the key to any situation like this that’s to be celebrated are the very human decisions that get made to save the day, and the very human responses, both positive and negative, that come as a result. While the film doesn’t soar nearly as well as we might have hope, it does manage to at least stick that landing.