The extent of my knowledge on Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s miraculous landing on the Hudson River is a line from “30 Rock,” when Matt Damon said, “You know what a great pilot would have done? Not hit the birds.”
The Hero of the Hudson was one of those media sensations that passed by without any additional research done by myself and, I imagine, much of the population. Now, seven years later, “Sully” looks to simultaneously educate and entertain audiences.
On the surface, “Sully” comes off as just another biopic, but it very quickly breaks that mold with its unconventional narrative structure. Rather than presenting events in a straightforward chronology, the film jumps between the “present day” court hearing surrounding the crash, the crash itself and Sully’s early life as a pilot. One of the most unexpected and well-executed decisions of the movie is to not start out with the crash. It trusts the audience to know the gist of what happened, and rolls out further details as it progresses. Likewise, it focuses on an important few days rather than stretching itself thin trying to cover all of Sully’s life.
Director Clint Eastwood, whose track record behind the camera has been mixed, does his best work since “Gran Torino.” The crash scenes, both inside the plane and the control tower, are emotionally wrought. It’s a smart decision avoiding outright tension, because it circumvents any potential comparisons to 2012’s “Flight” with Denzel Washington, a lesser film. Eastwood intimately frames Sully (Tom Hanks) to emphasize his humanity rather than his symbol as a hero, keeping him grounded as a relatable leading man.
It’s not all great. Even though the narrative as a whole is well done, the dialogue is often over written and hokey. Too often it revels in the sentiment of Sully’s accomplishment, which while impressive, makes for repetitive and boring conversations. The script also paints the investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board as outwardly trying to persecute Sully for the crash, a fact that has already been disputed and seems necessary only to create artificial drama. And the ending is just strange; it feels abrupt and weirdly self-congratulatory, like the movie is telling the audience that it did a great job and we should celebrate it.
None of this holds “Sully” back from being one of the year’s best films so far. Hanks is his usual self, capturing Sully’s existential crisis with a nuanced performance, and Aaron Eckhart rocks an excellent mustache as Sully’s co-pilot. By avoiding the pitfalls of the biopic genre, the films takes its familiar set-up to new heights. More importantly, it proves that at 86 years old, Eastwood is still an artist worth watching. “Sully” is a celebration of human ingenuity and an exhibit of our innate desire to help those who need it, in a time where that’s more necessary than ever.