Choices. As human beings, everything that we do is eventually is the result of choices we’ve made at some cross-road of our lives. We exercise choices at every point in our timelines. (I mean our lives’ timelines, not the one where we choose to update our status or share cat photos.) Most of us have pretty mundane choices to make – an ale or a lager? The white shirt or the blue one? Bread or pasta? Anu Malik or Nadeem-Shravan? (That’s Hobson’s Choice, by the way.) But, if you are a doctor poring over reports in critical care, your choices turn tighter and critical, more so because a bunch of folks are looking up to you to find light in a bewildering and frightening situation. And what if you’re an airline pilot? What are the choices you make mid-air, when in a split-second, things turn from normal to a steep nodus dip that seem to lead to a talus of debris of destruction?
If Leonard Mlodinow ever decides to come out with another addition of his witty, entertaining, and extremely educative The Drunkard’s Walk, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s true story will surely be an added section. But fret not. For, you now have a choice of experiencing this amazingly invigorating telling on screen that’s directed by Clint Eastwood. At an age where – if we ever make it to that side of senescence – we’d be more visited upon than making visits – Eastwood revisits this story with exemplary calmness and adroitness. Based on Sullenberger’s autobiography, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, the director makes no bones about whose side he is on, in this project. And by the time the movie ends, you’ll be without doubt too, and on the same side.
On January 15, 2009, Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) fly US Airways Flight 1549 out of LaGuardia airport, and just minutes into the flight, the Airbus A320 aircraft, with 155 passengers and crew onboard, is bird-hit by a large flock of geese. The aircraft’s right engine catches fire immediately and is disabled; this is followed by the sputtering off of the left engine. Sully’s frantically calm communication with the ATC leaves him with two choices – turn back to LaGuardia airport or swerve to land in Teterboro Airport, New Jersey. This is where Sully’s choices come into play. Amidst rapidly deteriorating events and horribly dissipating choices, what makes Sully do what he does? What calculations are burning through his brain as he takes the choice of plunging un-believability, creating aviation history? In real life as in the movie, we really never know, though we come close to understanding what happened in the cockpit that fateful morning.
Director Clint Eastwood makes Sully a gently rousing experience. He’s surefooted, landing the movie’s drama softly on its feet, never using histrionics to engage you. With writer Todd Komarnicki, Eastwood – who also co-produced this project– brings in dry, gentle humor as an emollient for your frayed nerves. And Sully’s story doesn’t end with the heroic landing he makes. The director portrays the trauma of the pilot who becomes an overnight hero – an everyday man whose life spins into the glaring arc of spotlight; a man of precise habit and process, who likes his life to predictable, suddenly loses grip on his sense of control lost in all the ensuing bedlam; a man not used to any attention suddenly finds himself the center of attention and speculation – as Sully says simply, “I’m overwhelmed by all this attention.”
Clint Eastwood also shines his calm lens on the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation that follows. While the real life NTSB investigators quickly squelched their portrayal onscreen, there’s an undeniable truth somewhere in there. You build your reputation, you stay true to your job and ensure nothing untoward ever happens. And then something does, and in a flash, you’re judged. It’s just so easy to demolish a reputation, just as hard it was to build it. As Tom Hanks’ Sully says, “I’ve had 40 years in the air but in the end, I’m going to be judged by 208 seconds.”
And in another doff to Eastwood, the director makes absolutely the most effective and breath-taking use of his IMAX cameras. He also uses an effervescent and gripping plot build-up to the emergency landing. And with editor Blu Murray, takes you into the flight multiple times, but veers off the final landing to catch you up to the present. And that’s the beauty of cinematic story telling such as this one – Eastwood keeps you on tenterhooks, then pulls you back, only to hoist you onto the aircraft again. But every time, the visuals are stunning, the cinematography and effects breath-taking, and your jaw drops as you watch it again and again, the effect tearing you up, making you applaud, and salute Sully. When the passengers alight, you shiver with them in the cold, you cry with them, and you are one amongst. For, Eastwood takes you in, and keeps you there, and shows you how drama can be IMAX’s forte and beauty, and never the 3-D format.
As Sully, Tom Hanks is simply outstanding. In what could possibly be an Academy Award nominated performance, he exudes subtlety and grace, letting his ethereal emoting be the tailwinds for the drama. Note the scene where, after being rescued, he stands atop the boat and surveys the flight and its surrounding area, his eyes rapidly darting even as they stumble anxiously, looking for any passenger they might have left behind. And later, when he gets confirmation of the rescue count of 155, his eyes dissolve in relief and anguish, melting you along with him.
Aaron Eckhart as the co-pilot is a class act, his one-liners delivered with a precision and timing that’d give even the writers of the Aircraft Flight Manual (AFM) a complex. Eckhart is perfect, and he’s never in the foreground – but there’d be no Sully without him. Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, Lorraine Sullenberger, provides the complete supporting act, adding her own sparkle of anxiety and guilt. In the scene where she tells Hanks on the phone that “There were 155 people on that plane and you were one of them”, she transcends the telephonic distance between them in one sniffle that simply breaks your heart.
As with the music score in Eastwood’s Gran Torino, Sully’s score by Christian Jacob and The Tierney Sutton Band (and the theme by Eastwood himself, just to further rub his creative magnificence in) is soft, tinkling its way to your senses through very effective pieces that are largely piano-based.
Sully, then, is a cinematic beauty, easily landing on the runway to 2016’s best movies. And it’s so dignified in its élan that even your huzzahs are internal. And you realize, in those quietly horrifying moments in the cockpit, as Tom Hanks announces, “This is the captain. Brace for impact” and you and the passengers obey in terror, Eastwood uses eternal grace and dignity for maximum impact.
Director Clint Eastwood Running Time 1h 36 min
Writer Todd Komarnicki
Stars Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn
Genres Biography, Drama
Watch the trailer of Sully here: