Sully finds Tom Hanks centre stage in a true story that taps into post-9/11 anxieties, so how could it not be an awards contender?
And that’s before you factor in Clint Eastwood behind the camera; his two Oscar wins as director matching Hanks’s back-to-back triumphs in the best actor category.
There’s no doubting the emotional resonance of the story either, which relates how US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger was forced to land a passenger plane on New York’s Hudson River.
Eastwood isn’t the type to beg the attention of the Academy, however, so this telling of the events of 15 January 2009, and the intense commotion that came afterwards, is resolutely unsentimental and distinctly unsensational. Like the hero of the piece – who questions whether he really did do the right thing – it is reserved and understated. That suits Eastwood and his style of film-making just fine. And for Hanks, playing the beleaguered pilot, it allows for an acting masterclass in playing grace under pressure.
Hanks is often described as an everyman, and in the sense that Sully maintains he was just doing his job, the actor is certainly performing to type. But he also has movie-star charisma and an innate soulful quality that few other Hollywood actors bring to the screen. The fact is, he doesn’t have to do very much to draw you in to Sully’s private thoughts and reflections while the media circus is in full swing around him.
Eastwood’s film flashes back and forth in time, opening with nightmare images of an airbus, US Airways Flight 1549, swooping low over Manhattan. When Sully wakes up in a cold sweat, it may leave you feeling emotionally manipulated – especially because those images evoke the terrible events of 9/11. Eastwood is otherwise restrained in portraying the crash in increments throughout the film, or what Sully insists was “a forced water landing” when he is later interviewed by investigators for the NTSB (the National Transportation Safety Board).
Still, the sight of New York skyscrapers from the air at skewed angles and the thrumming sounds of engines failing are truly haunting.
As co-pilot Jeff Skiles, Aaron Eckhart reminds the investigators that the plane landed “on” the Hudson, not “in” the Hudson, and his dry humour in the face of what was a potential catastrophe helps to leaven the sober approach of director and star. Laura Linney is typically tender yet no-nonsense as Sully’s wife, who is besieged by reporters back on the west coast, and a source of reassurance to her husband as he is bounced between TV interviews and borderline interrogation by the NTSB.
The suggestion made by his accusers – which would benefit the airline for insurance purposes – is that Sully had enough time to turn the plane around and return to LaGuardia airport, or else land on a runway seven miles away at Teterboro. It’s also put to him that one of the two engines was still operational. While having to take this on board, Sully is made to feel even more awkward with the adulation that is heaped upon him from around the world. Eastwood gets another gentle laugh at the way he deals with female attention, particularly, but this is a man brooding over what might have gone wrong.
Dramatising those “What if?” scenarios is one of the more difficult tasks for Eastwood given that Sully did land the plane, saving all “155 souls” on board, against all the odds. Repetition of the action from slightly different viewpoints (including the passengers and crew) doesn’t always work to build tension.
The public hearings that bring the story to its culmination are condensed as well, playing a little too much like an old Hollywood courtroom drama. The scenes feel at odds with the overall tone set by Eastwood and Hanks, where quiet level-headedness prevails over noise and chaos. Indeed, it mightn’t be exciting enough for some viewers, but Hanks is a big presence and carries this one home with great skill and composure.