What Everyone Is Missing in SULLY (2016)

Not every film I watch, find interesting, or review is a horror film (really). The last film I saw in theaters before going last weekend to see Clint Eastwood’s SULLY was THE SECRET LIFE OF PETS. Ok, so it was entertaining but not all that interesting. You don’t see me writing about it here, either. The one before that was the latest Star Trek film, BEYOND. For the record, my first response to that one was, “These editors need to dial it back on the Red Bull just a tad.” So don’t be surprised to see other, non-horror films reviewed here—variety is the spice of life, right?

As much as I might have been feeling sort of “meh” about the last two films I saw in theaters, I was really glad that I’d paid to see SULLY on the big screen. Not only was it tautly paced and intensely put together right from the titular character’s opening nightmare sequence, but it was worth it to see those sequences, and those re-creating the “Miracle on the Hudson” itself, writ large. Say what you will about Eastwood, his many years in Hollywood on both sides of the camera make him an able storyteller, and one who knows how to pull the audience in and keep them in his thrall for the duration.

From the outset, Tom Hanks gives one of his most nuanced performances as Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who glided his disabled airliner onto the Hudson River on January 15th, 2009. The grey hair and moustache does just enough to camouflage Hanks’s famous face and allow his acting to shine through, and at sixty, I think that face is as expressive as ever, moustache or no. Through the judicious use of close-ups, Eastwood is able to show Hanks bringing a depth to Sully that I’m not sure any other actor could have managed. And Hanks plays the accidental hero so well—from CASTAWAY to APOLLO 13—that the casting seems natural, even as it’s also a box-office surety.

The palette of the entire film evokes those chilly moments that the passengers of Flight 1549 had to endure as they waited to be rescued from the wings of the floating plane. The monochromatic qualities of the blue, grey, white, and black surroundings also end up emphasizing the warmer, more everyday sort of mise-en-scene that characterizes the few scenes of Sully’s home, a real contrast to the airport, meeting rooms, and hotel suites he spends most of the movie inhabiting. I haven’t read Sullenberger’s book, and therefore don’t know if the portrayal of Sully’s wife, Lorraine, is factual or not, but it was one of the few things that annoyed me about the film. Laura Linney is wasted in the role, partly because she has no actual screen time with Hanks (they converse throughout the movie exclusively on the phone), and because the part is that of a cliched worrywart. In the same conversation in which she tries to tell her husband he’s a hero, she dumps pressures on him about the cost of their mortgage and rental properties, bills that might not be paid on time due to Sully’s extended time out of the air for the investigation. These concerns seem mildly out of place with the clearly upper-middle class home setting Lorraine is always presented in, and it would be a terrible pun to say that the Sullenbergers might be “underwater” on their mortgage, but I’ll bite. She seems inordinately ridden with anxiety after the fact and from a distance, and Eastwood could have gotten any actress to tear up when talking about how she “might have lost” her husband. By contrast, Aaron Eckhart steals several scenes as Sully’s co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, just because he’s given witty, funny lines to break the tension and delivers them well. But he does manage to telegraph a kind of pent-up nervousness regarding the FAA investigation of the “crash”; a term the two airline professionals are consistently working to correct throughout the inquiry into the incident by saying, “This was not a crash. It was a water landing.”

Yet I think I can find elements of horror in SULLY. Even though I knew the ending—that the plane survives the water landing whole, and that not one of the 155 people on board is even seriously injured—I experienced a pervasive sense of dread while watching the film. The overall cold, dark hues surely contribute to it, but it’s also in a number of small moments throughout the movie. Here’s a shot of Sully jogging at twilight, a pained look on his face as he struggles with the tension of the investigation. Will he have a heart attack? Moments later, he’s nearly mowed down by a speeding cab. The depiction of the river mishap itself is harrowing, had me gasping and gripping my armrests in the theater, even though I knew all would be well. Then there’s a (seemingly) missing passenger. Is he dead? Drowned in the icy water, missed by Sully as he takes a last look at his sinking vessel? Will the FAA take this very capable, heroic pilot, who has ferried over a million people across the skies without incident, out of the cockpit for some stupid technical error? Will Anna Gunn tremble, frown, and blink right out of her skin?

Like any Captain, Sully leaves the slowly sinking plane last. At this moment I catch the thing that hasn’t been discussed in any other review I’ve read: with a look back the watery center aisle, Sully hesitates, already haunted by his experience before it’s even over. It’s a long, tight shot; he’s trapped in the frame with water below, empty seats on each side, and the weight of overhead compartments above. Until he hears that everyone on board is safe and accounted for, he obsesses over the idea that someone might have been left behind, that someone might have perished while he was at the helm, that he might have—even inadvertently—done something wrong. And then even after he learns that everyone is fine, the effect of the investigation is that he second-guesses himself, constantly, until the final moments of the film. In essence, the drama of SULLY is in the self-doubt and the strange survivor’s guilt carried by an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. The pervasive feeling that something this fortunate just can’t happen, and that somewhere in a parallel universe, the reality is that Sully is dead and there are 155 frozen, mangled bodies in the Hudson. Eastwood’s direction, the visualization of Sully’s interior fears in the recurring “crashes” he sees in his mind’s eye, a clever narrative trick with a passenger, and Hanks’s terrific performance conspire to levy that dread onto the audience, effectively asking you to feel the depth of uncertainty that Sully must have felt in the days following that historic event.

Finally, this film weighs in on another depth: that of the divisions in our culture and society at this current moment. The film ends with Sully and Skiles vindicated, and yet the two men in the cockpit refuse to take single credit for the “miracle.” Sully’s final speech in the film calls out every emergency responder, ferry captain, Air Traffic Control person, and even passenger, without whose action and cooperation this miracle may have turned into a tragedy. It is a shining example of what can be accomplished when individuals move past their differences and work together. Perhaps this message is too pat, too sentimental. But I think someone needed to say it right now, and I’m glad Eastwood did.

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