Friday, September 9, 2016

Sully: Flies high

Sully (2016) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and much too harshly for dramatic intensity and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.9.16


We are a species of second-guessers.

With precious seconds ticking away, after losing both engines to a bird strike, Capt. Chesley
"Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks, right) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) contemplate
several equally unpleasant options, every one of which carries the risk of killing
hundreds of people.
Even when something has been done properly, with the desired outcome, we often wonder: Might things have concluded even better, with a different set of actions?

Far worse, of course, is when an optimal result is challenged by others who question our judgment. Armchair quarterbacks who insist that, really, it should have gone down this way.

Human nature. Quite infuriating.

At first blush, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger would seem to be the last man on Earth to be confronted in such a manner; he is, after all, the hero who glided the disabled US Airways Flight 1549 Airbus A320 into a flat-out miraculous pancake landing on the Hudson River, on Jan. 15, 2009, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. As any pilot can verify, water landings aren’t nearly as “soft” as a dive into a swimming pool; depending on speed and angle of impact, it’s more like slamming into a brick wall.

Who, then, could argue with Sully’s actions, given the results?

Ah, but that’s the hook behind director Clint Eastwood’s new film, which gains its dramatic tension from a crackerjack script by Todd Komarnicki, based on Sullenberger’s best-selling book, Highest Duty. Komarnicki and Eastwood manage a seemingly impossible feat, by injecting suspense into a narrative whose outcome we already know.

But that’s the point: Most folks don’t know the full story. Granted, everybody watched the amazing events on that January afternoon in 2009, many of us glued to TV sets. But while it’s true Sully saved all 155 people, he wasn’t able to save the plane itself ... and — sad to say — neither Airbus nor its insurance underwriters were going to take the loss of a $70 million aircraft lightly.

Ergo, the second-guessing, and this film’s suspense, as Sully — played with gravitas by Tom Hanks — and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are grilled, after the fact, by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators who insist, armed with computer simulation test data, that the plane could have returned safely to the nearest La Guardia runway, or one at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport.

And we can’t help wondering: Could it be true?

At which point, Komarnicki and Eastwood have us hooked.

Sully is an intriguing choice for Eastwood, in many ways quite unlike most of his films. It lacks the grim and aggressive tone of his recent bio-dramas — J. Edgar and American Sniper — and also lacks the dramatic intensity of fictional sagas such as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. Nor are we mesmerized by characters as flashy and/or compelling as those featured in these earlier films.

Sully, in contrast, is quiet, thoughtful and understated, much like Hanks’ performance. It’s also a short film, clocking in at an economical 95 minutes: just enough to tell the story and exit the stage with grace.

But it’s no less powerful for that brevity, thanks to this story’s emotional core: a Chesley Sullenberger quite at odds with the smiling hero who made the rounds of TV talk and news shows, during the weeks immediately following his heroic act. This Sully, so well depicted by Hanks — absolutely this generation’s holder of the cinematic Everyman mantle previously worn by Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart — is a man in silent torment.

He’s assaulted by nightmares — queasily depicted here, during a prologue — of what might have happened, had he erred and attempted to guide the plane over the nearby city. It’s an unexpected portrait: one that’s brave and open-minded, on the actual Sullenberger’s part. He has no objections.

“The story being told came from my experiences, and reflects the many challenges that I faced and successfully overcame, both during and after the flight,” he insists, in a recent statement. “I was involved in the development, and am thrilled it’s being brought to the screen.”

Well, OK; that’s slightly misleading. This isn’t a documentary; it’s a piece of mainstream entertainment, and Komarnicki has done what all skilled screenwriters do routinely. He has compressed key events for dramatic impact, in this case suggesting that the post-mortem NTSB investigation takes place in a matter of days, when in fact the final report wasn’t issued until May 4, 2010, well over a year later.

That’s Hollywood: the better to build tension in a tautly assembled drama. (Editor Blu Murray, take a bow.)

Komarnicki also inserts some extraneous business about financial stress being endured by Sully and his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), apparently as a result of some real estate investment — early 2009, remember — and the possibility that, if the NTSB verdict goes the wrong way, and Sully loses his wings, they’d lose their house.

That’s gilding the lily rather too much, particularly since — having raised the point — the film fails to grant closure on it.

But that’s a minor caveat.

Eastwood and Komarnicki structure their film like a mystery, opening as the NTSB investigation begins, with an immediate claim that the plane could — should — have been saved. Mike O’Malley is suitably condescending as lead investigator Charles Porter; Anna Gunn is equally infuriating as co-investigator Elizabeth Data, wielder of the damning simulation data.

This early scene is quietly heartbreaking, given that Sully and Skiles enter the room expecting smiles and applause, and instead face accusations and thinly veiled censure. Hanks plays the moment in stunned, blinking silence; Eckhart registers disbelief and just the right level of unspoken, how-dare-you indignation, glimpsed only in his flashing gaze.

Hanks and Eckhart play well off each other, both in these tense NTSB sequences and their aftermath, during aggrieved, late-night jogs on the streets outside their hotel. The chemistry is solid; we get a strong sense that both of these men believe, in their hearts, that they did the right thing, and they’ll stand by each other, no matter what the consequences.

Later, as the full events of that fateful January morning are depicted during breathtaking flashbacks, Hanks and Eckhart also are persuasive in the Airbus cockpit: rattling through checklists, interacting with the cabin crew. Reacting, with surprise, at the bird strike when, mere minutes after leaving the runway, the plane plows directly into a flock of geese.

This is a tough moment to sell, requiring carefully nuanced balance. Hanks and Eckhart both nail it, displaying just the right amount of rising concern, while outwardly remaining calm and professional.

Indeed, Hanks’ ongoing dynamic with Eckhart is far superior to his connection with Linney. Sully and Lorraine never are in the same room during this film; they communicate only via phone calls. The actors don’t quite click, and Linney makes Lorraine seem needlessly self-absorbed.

Patch Darragh is memorable as Patrick Harten, the air traffic controller who responds to Sully’s mayday call. Jane Gabbert, Ann Cusack and Molly Hagan are equally persuasive as the plane’s three flight attendants. We don’t get to know many of the passengers; aside from one young woman with a baby, and three last-minute boarders, they remain anonymous.

But not entirely faceless. The drama didn’t end when Sully successfully “landed” the plane, because the Hudson’s frigid temperature was cold enough to kill anybody who remained in the water for more than a few minutes. This peril is conveyed, quite vividly, via what happens to a few of the de-planing passengers.

The crippled plane’s descent and landing are depicted authentically by visual effects supervisor Michael Owens: realistic enough to frighten viewers already nervous about airplane travel.

Christian Jacob and the Tierney Sutton Band deliver the understated score, employed sparingly — usually as quiet solo piano riffs — during key moments.

The final result is impressive, both for its honorable account of these events, and for the clever manner in which Eastwood and Komarnicki keep us hanging. I’ve no doubt sales of Sullenberger’s book will rocket for the next few weeks; I also highly recommend William Langewiesche’s meticulous article, in the May 2009 issue of Vanity Fair.

Quite a story.

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