Sully: Miracle on the Hudson review
There’s something very reassuring about a Tom Hanks film. His amiable and avuncular screen presence immediately sets you at ease. Just as the passengers of US Airways Flight 1549 would say of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, you are in safe hands with Tom Hanks. Which is a hugely important element when the film he is in is so confused. Hanks keeps you watching.
The film opens with Sully piloting a damaged plane that crashes into the streets of New York. It’s a shock tactic opening from director Clint Eastwood, who quickly cuts to Sully waking from a nightmare. We’re in the days immediately following the Miracle on the Hudson, and Sully is tormented over what might have happened. It’s a bold move from Eastwood to evoke 9/11 so early in the film. It’s not subtle, but it certainly gets your attention. The “miracle” in question is that on 15 January 2009, on a routine domestic flight out of LaGuardia Airport, a flock of geese flew in front of the plane. The birds were sucked into both engines and destroyed them. With no power, and not enough altitude to safely coast back to the airport, the Captain took the incredibly brave decision to land the plane on the Hudson River. Everyone on board survived.
With the fake-out out of the way, Eastwood gets straight into the not very thrilling administrative aftermath of the incident. Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have been hailed by the media as American heroes, but the National Transportation Safety Board are far from certain. This is the second major misstep, and we’ve only been watching for five minutes. Having been so blatantly reminded of 9/11 in the film’s first scene, are we supposed to believe that a pilot flying over New York City of all places, facing potential catastrophe, but avoiding it so heroically would face losing his job and his pension? There is no tension or drama here.
Eastwood is a director known for his uncomplicated and unfussy style, but with barely any plot to work with, he is forced to engage in some very un-Clint-like narrative jiggery-pokery. The entire second act of the film is devoted to the flight, the accident, and the miracle water landing. It is the absolute high-point of the film, beautifully edited, and agonisingly tense despite us knowing that it ends well. But that’s the whole story in that thirty minute sequence. To eke out a film, Eastwood – working from Todd Komarnicki’s dry and stuffy script – has to keep cutting back to the incident, seeing it from different perspectives, weaving in news footage, dream sequences, and pointless flashbacks to Sully’s youth.
Hanks of course saves the whole thing. The reluctant hero who was just doing his job, uncomfortable with the adoration, secretly doubting himself, and fearing that the NTSB might be right about him, it is another great performance to add to his body of work. The supporting cast are all solid, but the decision to waste an actress as good as Laura Linney with a thankless “wife on the phone” role is very strange. This is not vintage Eastwood, but for the nerve wracking flight sequence, and Tom Hanks’ effortless star quality, it is still worth watching.