It’s difficult to talk about Clint Eastwood’s biopic about Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, the pilot who managed to miraculously emergency land a plane full of passengers on the Hudson River in 2009, without mentioning 9/11. Although they are two different incidents, separated by eight-years, it’s the similarities that each shares – namely New York and an airplane – that are brought to the forefront in what feels like a hopeful remedy to the darkness and the grit that has been embedded into cinema since those attacks.
Comparisons are drawn early on, in an opening scene that sees a plane go crashing into a New York building; one in a number of dream sequences in which Tom Hanks’ Sully contemplates what could have been. As events continue to unfold, Eastwood’s take on the story, a positive one that focuses on the way in which people worked together to save the lives of each passenger, only becomes clearer and clearer to the point where one character comes right out and says “It’s been a while since New York had news this good – especially with a plane in it.”
But whilst Sully has all the makings of a flag-waving cringe-fest, Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay is, for the most part, surprisingly understated. At times the dialogue may feel a little ripe – “No one dies today” – and it’s a shame to see Laura Linney given so little to do with her role as Sully’s wife, but Komarnicki’s writing is otherwise reserved and thoughtful. Opportunities for added suspense during the film’s centrepiece landing are brushed to one side, with Eastwood allowing the moment to play out exactly the way it would have done in real life. And whilst I’m sure certain creative liberties were taken with the story, as is usually the case with biopics, it’s a credit to the film’s success in that it doesn’t feel tampered with at any point.
Working in harmony with the writing is Hanks’ fantastic central performance, which is easily the best we’ve seen him all year. The fact that the events leading to the water landing are slowly revealed to us over the course of the film affords the actor a slight ambiguity to play with. As Sully contemplates whether he is a hero or a fraud, and whether he could have done anything differently, we’re placed right there with him. The result is a really interesting, character-driven drama that makes you feel like you’re going on a journey with the main subject.
Certainly flawed in places and perhaps ever so slightly forgettable, Sully’s pros ultimately outweigh the cons. It has a remarkable and recent true story that draws you in, one that is grounded by Tom Hanks’ performance and Clint Eastwood’s simple-but-effective direction. There are no tricks and it at no point feels emotionally manipulative. It’s simply back-to-basics storytelling that is completely riveting.
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