Clint Eastwood's Sully (2016) reprises a famous and recent event in which a skilled pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, successfully landed a commercial passenger plane in the Hudson River. Most air calamities end in disaster. In this case, all 155 souls aboard survived. I was skeptical whether an interesting film could be made about this incident. But, in fact, Sully is very good and I recommend it.
There's a shot in Howard Hawks' film Only Angels have Wings that I particularly cherish -- it's the opening of the movie, an image showing a sea-going vessel arriving at harbor and docking. In the scene we see a heavy-set man, apparently the harbor pilot, watching impassively as the vessel is brought ashore. The heavy man is impassive and does almost nothing, but he exudes an aura of simple competence. With this man at the helm, you understand that all will be well. Sully is moving in a similar way. The film is a demonstration of honest competency that affects audiences with an inexplicable emotion of gratitude. In part, this is because the film's solid merits as a work of motion picture art are exactly commensurate with the movie's theme. At 86, Eastwood doesn't have time for frippery or fancy camera set-ups. He simply does his job skillfully, keeps his focus on the main factors, and takes care to direct the picture so that it is absolutely clear. There's nothing ambiguous about the film -- ambiguity is not always a virtue and, sometimes, a direct declarative statement is best. This is particularly true in the context of this film, a movie that is, in fact, quite unusual and complex with respect to its fundamental themes. Eastwood's concern is with the clash between bureaucrats asserting theoretical principles and human beings required to execute difficult tasks in the heat of the moment. This conflict, in turn, gives rise to meditations on fame and heroism -- Sully becomes an instant hero to the media, while, in fact, his decision-making is under attack by the regulatory agency governing air travel. The conflict between Sully's public persona and his private ordeal, similar to events shown in Eastwood's Flags of our Fathers (the publicly celebrated heroes are suffering post-traumatic stress), in turn, leads to an analysis of the larger context in which heroism occurs -- ultimately, we conclude that Sully's calm competence would have been useless without the similarly competent efforts of a multitude of people: air traffic controllers, stewardesses, ferry operators and coast guard crews and, in fact, all of the passengers on the plane, people who did not panic and who evacuated the aircraft in an orderly fashion. I think the movie strongly affects people, because it asserts a conclusion very different from most films on the market -- the audience concludes that some forms of heroism are quite common, essential to living in society, and that the simple virtues of competence and cooperation are, perhaps, heroic in their own right. After the film ended, at the theater where I saw the picture, no one stirred -- everyone stayed in their seats during the first half of the closing credits, fascinated by the actual images of the plane crashed in the Hudson and the pictures of a reunion of Sullenberger and the people who were on the aircraft that day: they face the camera, looking very much like you and I, and recite the seat number that they occupied on that fateful day. The reasons the audience was fascinated and moved by the film is because it asserts that everyone who does his or her job capably may be, in fact, a hero of a sort -- the film ennobles the audience and makes them all feel heroic.
There are some weaknesses in the movie. The climax, although it has a populist appeal, feels slightly contrived -- I doubt that the simulations that vindicate Sullenberger's decisionmaking were actually presented in real time to a huge crowd of reporters and official at a public meeting. Scenes showing Sully's longsuffering wife are perfunctory -- she doesn't really add much to the story. (Eastwood is honest about this, however -- most directors would contrive a tearful reunion between husband and wife; Eastwood keeps them apart and ends the movie with a sardonic jape.) Some of the flashback flying sequences seem to be padding -- there really isn't enough material to sustain the film through its full length. Tom Hanks, doing his typical Everyman-schtick is bearable in this film, even, I think, exceptionally good -- like the best movie stars he knows when less is better. The minor parts are impeccably cast and Eastwood's special effects are brilliantly designed and fantastically clear and lucid. Most importantly, the movie understands that air travel is something that is fundamentally fantastic, the stuff of dreams: on the big screen, the images of the huge plane slowly turning in the air, flames sputtering from both engines is spectacular and the belly-flop into the Hudson has a visceral impact. The rescue scenes are modestly but impressively staged. Most everything about the film has an aspect of sober, unassailable realism -- the hotel suites where official board inquiries take place are exactly right, somewhat shabby but big enough to suffice (good enough for government work) and the scenes on the streets of New York or at its waterfront are all completely convincing. The script is logical and understated. Some of the camerawork is stunning -- an image of Sully after a hot shower, sitting in steam next a drapery of white cloth is extraordinary: the light makes the white terrycloth glow as if it were an annex to paradise.