The promise of a Clint Eastwood-directed film is always worthy of anticipation, and it seems that the older he gets the more substantial and fulfilling his films become. He is one of only a select handful of directors for whom I consider each release to be an event. Yet with the announcement of his latest film, Sully, my excitement was replaced with a sense of uncertainty.
It tells the story of the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, the 2009 incident where Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of a passenger jet, courageously executed an emergency crash landing in the middle of the Hudson river in New York. It’s an amazing story of survival and yet – to the extent of my knowledge ““ it was a fairly straightforward story that I wasn’t certain could withstand the length of a full feature film.
All doubt was lifted when Eastwood’s new film burst onto the screen with an unexpected urgency. From its opening scene the film acknowledges the incident and doesn’t insult the audience with a long and arduous dramatisation of the events that lead to the crash. Instead, it begins with Sully in the midst of a media frenzy, while preparing for a gruelling investigation and interrogation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The film introduces a man who is under immense pressure and details the way in which he handles himself. Needless to say, Sully is a fascinating character study.
Tom Hanks commands the screen as the modest and respectable Captain Sullenberger, and delivers yet another awe-inspiring performance. He presents his character with the upmost dignity and showcases an impressive emotional range that few of his contemporaries can muster. A particularly moving moment has Sully reacting to the news that all passengers survived. While the scene is contrived, it nevertheless proves Hanks to be a standout actor of his generation.
The film co-stars Aaron Eckhart as the whimsical co-pilot, who, in the face of adversity, offers reassurance to Sully at a time when shutting down emotionally was the easiest option. Eckhart is the unsung hero who delivers an understated and commendable performance, and despite walking in Hanks’ very big shadow, he owns as much of the screen and is afforded a memorable end line. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, who spends all of her screen time at home on the phone in a constant state of panic. Linney’s is the weakest performance, uncharacteristically poor in comparison to her previous films, and it’s fortunate that Hanks and Eckhart keep the story in check.
Some may consider Sully to be a melodramatic hallmark that plucks at the audience’s heartstrings, and they would be within their right. It is most certainly an unabashed attempt to salute a modern American hero and it makes no apologies for being sentimental. Eastwood identified a story worth telling and has constructed his film in a non-sequential manner, pin-balling the audience back and forth between various events and circumstances that culminate in an inspiring finale to reminds us of the cinema of old.
In today’s world sentimentality combined with substance often results in criticism and ridicule, and yet were a film like Sully made in the 1950s it would be lauded and remembered as a classic, and that’s certainly something to keep in mind.