Every job has its nightmare scenario. For people in my line of work it could be writing an erroneous news article about the President or wading into a position to find one’s self disgraced and fired for bowing at the altar of plagiarism. For someone like the subject of this film, airplane pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, your nightmare scenario sees the death of hundreds.
Sully, directed by 86 year-old Clint Eastwood, recounts events following the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” in New York which saw the gutsy emergency water landing of a US Airways flight allowing all 155 of its passengers and crew to come out alive. Sully becomes a hero in the eyes of the public but in the eyes of the USA’s (unfairly?) smug officials on the Transportation Safety Board, it becomes a question of what should have been. They feel he could have made it to a nearby airport after a flock of geese take out the plane’s engines.
Sully went with his instincts, anchored in four decades of flying and yes, his decision resulted in the best possible scenario, but in the Safety Board’s eyes procedure wasn’t followed and it was going to exact its pound of flesh. Sully has his instincts, the board has equations and algorithms and flight simulators that seemingly debunk our protagonist’s gut choice to land on the river arguing there were much safer bets. Thus a series of hearings begin to go with the media frenzy Sully would much rather do without.
Eastwood plays with a number of ideas here. For one, he obviously favours the gutsiness that comes with experience as against the security we derive from the totem of computer analysis. I also wondered if he also says something about dread and whether it informed Sully’s decision to avoid a trip over urban spaces back to the airports. This film comes around the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and the opening of this film, Sully’s nightmare, is an ominous throwback. 155 lives were saved but that is too simple. All the talk is of how close to death the 155 were, as if to say good news is too much of a luxury.
The film balances this pessimism with some simple scenes of hero worship as Sully has drinks named after him and gets hugs and kisses from strangers. All this is undercut with the Safety Board’s investigation cum witch hunt and some domestic moments to infuse some stakes. Sully pours his thoughts and fears to his wife over the phone as a possible retirement without a pension and house payments are thrown in to tug at audiences in some forced moments that don’t matter much. The meat of this film is in the investigation.
On the surface, one struggles to see how such an inquiry could keep audiences engaged, but Eastwood manages to pull it off with gripping dexterity. The Safety Board is looking to prove recklessness and our director plays it such that it is infectious. After a while, I felt like I too was searching for flaws. That meant the multiple depictions of the accident leading to the spectacular crash-landing were not redundant. Much like the board, I found myself looking for flaws in Sully’s process. Did panic cause him to just abandon protocol and follow his guts? Were both engines really offline? Did he try hard enough to restart them?
On the topic of the multiple depictions of the crash-landing, Eastwood smartly turns to an infusion of multiple perspectives, from a character and physical level. We see and feel the plane slam onto the water from the Sully’s point of view in the cockpit, from the coast guard patrolling the river, from yuppies in New York skyscrapers. We are given the passengers perspective with the tension and fear of impending death and the realisation of the miracle landing. Time is also spent with the control tower guy as attempts are made to talk Sully out of the Hudson landing. Tears run down his cheek when he thinks the worst has happened.
As far as the investigation is concerned, nothing is clear till the final showdown before the board where Sully may live or die by a certain gamble he has taken. Through all his travails, Sully remains the selfless veteran with a strong poker face. By his side is Aaron Eckhart as the witty co-pilot, Jeffery Skiles who stands resolute behind his captain’s decision, opting not to suffer the cynical Safety Board. Their banter is honest given they were side by side in a brush with death and the scenes of them talking about their experience provide some welcome humanity.
Sully is as tight as they come – probably Eastwood’s shortest film. His story telling is fluid, save for a couple of seemingly pointless flashbacks and it gets audiences to do the simple things, like rooting for Sully in this portrait of an everyday hero.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana