Edd Elliott

An age-old tale of man versus machine, Clint Eastwood’s Sully finds tension aplenty but struggles with its “true story” tag.

“Brace for impact!” Three words no flyer wants to hear. All those ignored pre-flight safety instructions have come back with a vengeance. We were all fiddling with our phones or reading about completely indispensible sports gilets in Sky Mall magazine – well done us. The announcement of impending disaster, one imagines, would be softened slightly by its delivery in the dulcet tones of Tom Hanks. But the thought of “Why is Tom Hanks flying the plane?” would very quickly be pushed aside by “I’m plummeting towards the earth at 600mph!”

Interestingly, Sully – Clint Eastwood’s re-dramatization of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on New York’s Hudson River in January 2009 – is more concerned with the aftermath of this dance with destruction. Tom Hanks plays the titular Capt. Chelsey “Sully” Sullenburger, the man at the wheel for the death-defying plummet. The whole world thinks he is a hero. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), however, are not so sure. Early simulations of the flight indicate the passenger jet could have made it back to a runway, and there is even suggestion that one of the engines may still have been working. The inquiries place increasing strain on the already traumatized pilot. Driven to question himself by the allegations, Sullenburger begins to contemplate the capitulation of not only his newfound status but his career and personal life.
Despite the suggestion of its rather placid title, Sully is in fact a taut psychological drama. At its heart is the Capt. Sullenburger, broodingly played by Tom Hanks, providing one of his best performances since his last skipper-related role Captain Phillips. The aging pilot is racked with self-doubt. His actions are always minimal – he stares, pauses and frowns – but the small gestures neatly present a man overwhelmed by how far he feels he is plummeting. The film finds more dramatic fair in returning to the flight. Selectively edited versions of the plane’s spiraling descent are replayed as the protagonist relives his now tortured memory, trying to recall his actions at the height of panic. Each does just a little to suggest some guilt. Was he too quick to choose a river landing? Did his failing consultancy business in airplane safety create a conflict of interests? Only in the film’s final moments is the true path of events revealed.

Image credit: Warner Brothers

Doubts come from without as well as within. The slimy NTSB lawyers, led by the ruthlessly officious Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley), hound Sully into admitting the subjectivity of his actions. The tests have been run and the data gathered, they constantly reiterate, and the captain “objectively” chose wrongly. The arguments quickly evolve into the age-old contest of man versus machine. The human – Sully – acted on fallible impulse; computers do not. “Simulations” almost become a dirty word as it is endlessly spat across the meeting room table, supposedly proving the incontrovertible and indisputable that the pilot was at fault. This awesome technological opponent gradually overpowers the film’s protagonist – and the audience to some extent – forcing him to admit defeat. It may not look like Terminator, but Clint Eastwood’s picture flies in the same skies.
Herein, however, lies Sully’s largest faults. In pinning the antagonist role on computers, the film creates a straw-man villain. Is it possible that the simulations have been incorrectly calibrated? The film presents Capt. Sullenburger’s realization of this concept as a discovery akin to Gallileo’s eureka moment, but to most of the audience this will appear obvious. Stop for a moment and you realize the fault here is with boring old humans, slightly denting Sully’s anti-computer crusade. The shaky ideology is not helped by a (fittingly) sky-diving ex-machina relating to the discovery of an engine in the film’s final moments.
Above it all, Sully struggles with the weight of its “true story” status. We already know that Capt. Sullenburger was not disgraced, constantly undermining the film’s attempts to build an uncertain conclusion. That is not to say Clint Eastwood’s film is without merits: there are extended moments of tension and drama in the fraught boardroom scenes. Sully, however, always feels like its flying against the breeze. Its ideas never truly land safely to ground, leaving one strangely wishing for a slightly darker conclusion.
*** - 3/5 Stars
Sully opens in theatres on 2 December. The film is directed by Clint Eastwood, and stars Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart and Valerie Mahaffey. It is a certificate 12A.

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