It’s hard to distinguish what is human and what is celebrity. In an age where information is so readily available in any given scenario, it is easy to remember that behind every statistic and every logical speculation are people; actual people. Sully, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effect, opens with pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger waking up alone and scared, despite his name being featured in every headline and every media outlet around him praising him as a hero. As the movie progresses, the lines between public perception and Sully’s insecurities begin to blur as he’s not sure of himself or how people perceive him.
People approach him with honor and praise and he is never sure if he should embrace it or reject it. Between this and the National Transportation Safety Board scrutinizing every aspect of his character for any kind of fault, Sully finds himself isolated with only thoughts of “what if” to keep him company.
It’s not long before we learn about the incident that everyone is referring to – the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” landing landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River conducted by pilot Chesley Sullenberger. Over the course of the briskly paced film, we learn more about this incident and how Sully responds to the attention given to him through an unconventional means of storytelling that brought to mind Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Rashomon, in which a terrible event involving multiple people, each time from a new character’s perspective so that every time it retells the same events, emphasizing each account’s limited perspective at the time.
It was the perfect way to take an isolated incident and turn into something more complex and grandiose in its scale. Even though we revisit the same events over and over again, it becomes exponentially more compelling. Yet, where Rashomon presented a puzzle with no solution, Sully offers one that could have only been achieved after going on the journey to discover how the pieces fit together.
Clint Eastwood has done non-linear storytelling with biographical filmmaking before and he attempts it again with Sully. The Hudson River event is revisited several times, but from other perspectives that thematically link to the mental place that Sully himself is occupying. In one section, we see the events as a passenger on the plane, another from the public workers who helped save people that day. By the end, we experience it through the eyes of Sully himself, but only after witnessing his waking nightmares of the disaster that could have happened if he had made different choices in the heat of the moment.
Through this, the film achieves an emotional catharsis that would not have been as powerful had these events been told completely straight in a chronological traditional fashion. The transitions in and out of flashbacks left a bit to be desired as the “triggers” are not explicitly clear in their thematic reasoning at first, but in the end they did not take away from the power these flashbacks had.
It’s not surprising that Tom Hanks is capable of a good performance (and is fantastic here), but it is refreshing to see such a subdued performance in a role that could have easily been overblown with the intentions of “Oscar bait” in mind. Through great restraint Hanks earns legitimacy in his portrayal of Sully, and when the emotional beats of his performance hit, they are earned. He gives a lovely performance and one that will be an obvious contender when awards season time comes around.
Clint Eastwood’s last film was American Sniper, which was also a contender in its respective awards season, but one that felt unearned to me. Clint Eastwood took a compelling subject and reduced it to its surface value while also taking liberal creative liberties in its portrayal of both its subject and the setting he occupied, despite having the real world counterparts to reference. I walked out of that film feeling cold and manipulated, especially after reading the Chris Kyle memoir that the film supposedly took most of its inspiration from. I never felt like I saw an honest portrayal of a man whose story was begging for a more compelling and complicated film. A complicated man was reduced to just the idea of a man, and that disappointed me greatly. In Sully, Eastwood does a complete turn around and directs a project that is all about the complexities of one man and how his humanity inspires those around him.
There is a moment where Sully is looking out of a skyscraper window and he imagines his plane crashing into the buildings in front of him, intentionally evoking post 9/11 anxieties in the audience. While the events of September 11th, 2001 are not a main focus, their influence and memory echo throughout this film as it explores how the citizens of New York City respond to an actual miracle rather than devastation. Sully s ultimately about community and the complicated individuals within that community. As Sully says toward the end of the film, “You are looking for human error but you are missing the part that is human.” I could argue this is an honest statement about Clint Eastwood himself. With Sully, he has found that human part again. It is a smaller and more focused film, but one that never sacrifices its intelligence or emotional authenticity. This is his best film in years.