MPAA Rating: PG-13 | Rating: ★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Biography, Drama Director: Clint Eastwood

From pop culture to politics, it feels like it’s been a year of overwhelming bad news. The genre of lament was created for such seasons, an aesthetic response to the emotional outcry against suffering and injustice. Yet somewhere, mixed in with the anger and grief, there are also stories of hope. These are stories where good people do good things out of sheer mercy. Often these stories go unnoticed and don’t make the news, mostly because they’re people simply doing their job.

So it was a delightful surprise to find myself moved to tears not once, but twice, in Clint Eastwood’s simple-yet-solid biopic, Sully, a film that celebrates good people doing a good thing for others simply because it’s their job. We all likely know the story–Chelsey Sullenberger landed a plane on the Hudson River in New York City after losing both engines and–here’s the remarkable part–every person survived.

I’m sure the joke has been made elsewhere, but this is now the third true-life story where Tom Hanks has managed to survive impossible odds on board a vehicle. First, it was space in Apollo 13. Then it was the ocean in Captain Phillips. Now it’s an airplane in Sully. Just like in the previous films, Hanks turns in an affecting performance, this time as a capable man questioning his competence in his vocation. Sully has been a pilot over 40 years, and he’s a good one. He’s the sort of pilot who can land a plane on a river in the middle of the busiest city in America, and nobody died. Yet such an experience leaves him conflicted, and the film explores his self-doubt and internal wrestlings. Sometimes this is effective, mostly through the silent stares from a man whose mind is anywhere but reality. Sometimes it’s jarring and a bit overly dramatic–there are at least three dream/vision sequences in which Sully wonders about alternatives to his heroic narrative. The film’s chosen focus on the Department of Transportation’s investigation of Sully’s actions tends to create unnecessary antagonists in the questioners, who seem skeptical and hostile towards Sully from the beginning. Still, there are no real villains here (perhaps apart from the birds who killed the engines). It’s a remarkable story, told in a meat-and-potatoes manner which serves the themes and narrative well.

It’s called “The Miracle on the Hudson” but Eastwood seems to go out of his way to deemphasize any spirituality to the event. Sully celebrates human achievements, giving particular time to the various people who were doing their jobs that fateful day. From the ferry boat drivers to the NYC police officers to the flight attendants on the plane, there is something admirable, even beautiful, about seeing people go above and beyond mere duty and genuinely serve others. The film isn’t particularly melodramatic or sentimental, though a final end credits scenes with the real-life Sully and the passengers felt a bit schmaltzy. It’s somber and simple; like its jazz-flavored score and the level-headed titular pilot, it’s cool. So when I teared up at some particular scenes–especially when Sully and others were serving the frightened passengers–it caught me off guard. I suppose I was genuinely moved, not because Sully is some extraordinary hero, but precisely because he isn’t that extraordinary. He’s a normal guy trying to do the best job he can do, regardless of accolades.

The film gives special emphasis to a nameless flight controller who does his best to guide the falling plane to various airports. Racked with guilt over what he believes to be a lost plane, it’s a cathartic moment of redemption when it’s discovered that the plane headed for the Hudson is intact. When tears formed in his eyes at the news, they formed in mine, too. Come to think of it, that’s the third time I cried in this film. Maybe I just really needed some good news, a picture of hope, a reminder that humanity is capable of astounding acts of love and self-sacrifice. Maybe we all do.

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