Sully – 2016

Director Clint Eastwood
Written by Todd Komarnicki based on The Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger
and Jeffrey Zaslow
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Autumn Reeser, Holt McCallany, Jamey Sheridan, Jerry Ferrara

There is a scene in the midst of Sully where we see a flight attendant telling one of the passengers near the front of the airplane to jump out of the just landed plane while she is trying to corral the rest of the passengers to line up in an orderly fashion. He looks at her, confused, as he has no life jacket and this exit does not have a landing pad for upon which to land. She is following protocol and really doesn’t comprehend what the passenger’s face is trying to express. She is trying to keep everyone else moving and calm. She prods him to action and he jumps. After swimming around in water that has a chill factor of -5, he makes his way back to the nearest flotilla. This is but one way something could have lead to a death. Somehow it was avoided. Every action is completely understandable in this highly charged environment filled with such tension. This is what happens when humans are a factor.

There is no harder story to tell in Hollywood than a true one. The meat and potatoes grist of a story may be there, but everything that accompanies the meal is usually the same. Take any biopic about a singer or actor and you see drug abuse and its subsequent recovery. Take any story about a miracle and you get the little guy having to overcome obstacles applied by external forces (most often government) that is there just for the sake of telling us what rules they broke.

The National Transportation Safety Board serves as the bogeyman in this take on the heroic actions of Chelsey Sullenberger (Hanks) and Jeff Skiles (Eckhart). If for no other reason than serving as filler, the board picks every opportunity to act as the antagonist in an event where antagonism never surfaces. The unit, consisting of members whose individual names were removed from the script at the request of Sullenberger, gives the already reeling pilot fresh doses of antagonism immediately following the landing. So aggressive is the group that we get the distinct impression that Sullenberger and his co-pilot are not able to see their families for several days after the event. In essence, he is held hostage until they finish their review.

Any reasonable assessment of this film can discount this whole subplot from the start. There has to be a reason for us to want to watch the film beyond the amazing feat the two pilots pulled off, along with the subsequent rescue by several New York ferry and rescue operations, right? Well…no. I could have handled more of those heroes that helped Sully save 155 souls from pending doom.

As it stands, Sully is still a fantastic movie. Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood have mastered the art of restraint. We see every ounce of doubt in Hanks’ eyes in the simple act of running along the water before dawn. The conversations between his Sully and Linney’s Lorraine Sullenberger bring immediate tears to one’s eyes when we realize that the things that weigh us down in life often get in the way of us just being grateful for life and love itself. We notice when she says she loves him after a particularly tough conversation and he neglects to respond in kind. And we feel closure when this omission is very quietly rectified in a later phone call.

Sully is the kind of movie America will always need to remind itself of the quality of its citizens. We can even extend this to humanity itself. We have countless examples of life being difficult. We are indeed living outside the garden of Eden. What Eastwood has done, though, is to bring us a vision of God’s grace that is so hard to comprehend that the one who provided it even doubts his role within said vision. So many people are thankful to a man who has difficulty accepting that he should receive thanks.

It is for this reason that the NTSB role is acceptable in Sully. They provide a touch of the grist of doubt that Sully feels. If it is a little exaggerated, it is only because we feel so much sympathy for the protagonist. The board is only doing its job looking at all of the factors. We just want to be happy he’s alive.

A good film leaves you wanting more, but knowing you’ve seen enough. Eastwood shows glimpses of Sully’s past when they apply to how it made the hero with whom we’re presented. His doubt is resistant to every indication that he deserves praise. It makes a remarkably satisfying result when we finally see the tide is turned in his own self-analysis. Hanks does all of this with a dry poignancy that is matched by Eastwood’s spare presentation. If ever two talents were meant to work together, it is these two.

Every supporting actor falls perfectly into place, with Eckhart in particular providing excellent counterbalance. The predominant mood is one of cooperation here and that is hard to pull off in long form. There is but one awkward moment between the two of them, which is made all the sweeter when one realizes that’s just the way things happen when you are human.

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. Humans at their best doing what they do imperfectly, but still brilliantly. How do they do it?  Eastwood and Hanks come closest to showing you how these humans play a factor.

(****1/2 out of *****)

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