‘Only US Airways 1549 Matters Today’: Our Review of 2016’s Sully (Spoilers Ahead)

There’s a point to be discussed  when films are different than advertised. The sole trailer for director Clint Eastwood’s recently released 2016 feature film, Sully, suggested a tense film verging on the disaster sort of movie.

The, subjectively interpreted, truth of Sully is different: even in the tensest of scenes, as epitomised in the moment of birdstrike, director Eastwood’s Sully maintains a calm tension, presided over by Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the titular role, that never breaks a sweat.

That last sentence is true in metaphor and literal observation.

"Sully" New York Premiere
(from left to right) Star Aaron Eckhart, retired airline captain Chesley ‘Sully‘ Sullenberger, director Clint Eastwood and star Tom Hanks attend the New York City premiere of Sully (Jim Spellman/WireImage Photo and Caption via TheHollywoodReporter.com)

Reading up on director Eastwood’s style, not only in anticipation of an Eastwood week later in the future, Sully features a few of his trademarks, as discussed previously by Deborah Allison of SensesOfCinema.com among others:

  1. Working with similar production crew, à la Steven Spielberg and increasingly Sir Ridley Scott, over a long stretch of time; in this respect, key crew members over the past ten years of filmography since 2006’s Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers include
    1. Cinematographer, Tom Stern;
    2. Costume Designer, Deborah Hopper;
    3. Production Designer, James J Murakami, except for 2006’s Flags of our Fathers;
    4. Editor Joel Cox, except for Sully and;
    5. Composer Clint Eastwood or the duo of Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens; the exceptions being Sully and 2014’s Jersey Boys;
  2. A predilection for on-location shooting where landscape plays a crucial role, à la the role of the Hudson River being observed from different angles in Sully.
  3. Movies that feel economical and lean-ly told in nature: Sully, stemming from its tight focus from the get-go until its climax on the NTSB investigation being among them.
  4. Tempo of the editing: in Sully, and 2014’s American Sniper, the camera cuts from and back to key visual cues, à la the F-4 Phantom aboard the USS Intrepid in the former, without an inordinate amount of time to ponder its meaning.
  5. Underdog characters confronting authority figures: the near-villainisation of Sully‘s NTSB investigators and Captain Sullenberger’s attempts to convince them of his rightful actions echoes this unviolently.
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(from left to right) Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki and Maxim Magazine editor Steve Garbarino celebrate the launch of the former’s 2008 book, War, in New York City (Andrew H Walker/Getty Images Photo and Caption)

Extrapolating from the lean-ly told story point above, screenwriter Todd Komarnicki tells a tightly-focused story with the key through-line, or dramatic spine, being the NTSB investigation into US Airways Flight 1549 and its protagonist being Tom Hanks’ Captain Sullenberger. Among the themes in Sully are the dehumanisation of life and function (Captain Sullenberger’s ‘you’ve taken all the humanity out of the cockpit‘ line to the NTSB panel who believe computer simulations are correct), the preponderance of post-traumatic stress disorder (Captain Sullenberger’s nightmares and induced visions of the incident) and the 21st century’s cross-examination of life from multiple angles and media (à la how several characters and media personalities, David Letterman and Katie Couric et al, share their perpsective on the ‘Miracle on the Hudson‘).

Sticking with the latter, there’s an interesting narrative technique of hearing a third-party narrate an incident to the character-in-frame over radio.

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(from left-foreground to centre-background) Tom Hanks’ Captain Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart’s First Officer Skiles in a scene from 2016’s Sully (MediaFilm.ca)

Despite the sole star-billing, Sully’s closest thing to an acting duo is that between Tom Hanks’ Captain Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart’s First Officer Skiles; the latter is as close to a less-restrained sounding board and nearl-unflappable confidant – the scene during the evacuation on the Hudson being the outlier – as Sully has. Mike O’Malley’s NTSB investigator in Charles Porter is also restrained as the film’s unavowed, system-personified antagonist.

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(from left to right) Composer Christian Jacob and the Tierney Sutton Band (Berklee.com Photo and Caption)

In a stretch of commentary that transcends into the cinematography section, the music, courtesy of Christian Jacob and the Tierney Sutton band, has a distinct air travel-esque vibe to it, carrying the jazz that we associate with director Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can and his 2004 film, The Terminal. The atmospheric original music adds a transitory feel to the film and accentuates the aviation-rooted origins along with the…

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Director of Photography, Tom Stern, pictured far-right during the filming of director Eastwood’s 2011 film, J Edgar (Panavision.com Photo and Caption)

Cinematography, courtesy of director of photography, Tom Stern. The cinematography in Sully typically has three, subjectively simplistically seen phases: the aviation one, where there is suitably cramped photography in LaGuardia airport and aboard the Airbus A320; the nighttime jogging one, where a mixture of background smoke and vapour with Times Square screens lend the feeling of transitory, dreamlike experience; and the daytime New York one, where the streets are as pleasingly or tourism-esque neutrally familiar as the   2002 Spider-Man film or a tourism advert.

Again, with more simpification than Sully warrants, Sully is a focusedly-told and winter-ly shot look into the NTSB investigation post-‘Miracle on the Hudson’. Whether aeroplanes are your thing or Tom Hanks is, or if you really want to (literally) flash back to January 2009, Sully is a great entry-point for either taste.

(While the opinions and observations cited above are those of the author, the following sources were used to acquire facts: Esquire.com, GoldDerby.com, HistoryVsHollywood.com, HollywoodReporter.com, IMDb.com,  Indiewire.com, SensesOfCinema.com, TheGuardian.com, TheWrap.com)

Plot and Act-by-Act Breakdown:

Plot: A post-‘Miracle on the Hudson‘ Captain Chesley Sullenberger must convince an NTSB  investigation of the validity of his actions during and after the incident.

Prologue: Captain Sullenberger experiences and awakes from a nightmare about Flight 1549 crashing into New York City.

Act 1: Captain Sullenberger attends the first NTSB session with First Officer Skiles; he later speaks to his wife and returns to the hotel.

Act 2: Captain Sullenberger has a similar nightmare again; he decides to speak with First Officer Skiles and they go jogging in New York City.

Act 3: Captain Sullenberger chooses to go for the television interview.

Act 4: Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles go for the second NTSB session; Captain Sullenberger asks to see the computerised simulation parameters.

Act 5: Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles, are invited to and, decide to attend a David Letterman episode; he also later decides to call his wife.

Act 6: In a flashback, Captain Sullenberger commandeers US Airways Flight 1549 on a flight from New York to Charlotte; he successfully chooses to water-land the aircraft in the Hudson River post-birdstrike.

Act 7: Captain Sullenberger decides to go for another nighttime jog; in a flashback, he successfully commandeers an F-4 Phantom jet to land at Nellis Air Force Base.

Act 8: Captain Sullenberger chooses to visit a bar for a drink; in another flashback, he orders the evacuation of the waterlogging Airbus A320 and helps passengers out of the aeroplane.

Act 9: Captain Sullenberger decides to call his wife immediately, post-evacuation; he declines to visit the mayor and police chief until all survivors are accounted for but chooses to visit the hospital for treatment.

Act 10: Captain Sullenberger asks Larry Rooney to provide Airbus’ simulation data at the briefing; both Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles attend the final NTSB hearing.

Act 11: Defying the simulation, Captain Sullenberger asks for a thirty-five-second delay to be programmed into Airbus’ simulation; Captain Sullenberger is later vindicated when shown that human pilots can’t return to La Guardia quickly enough in those conditions.

Act 12: Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Skiles later choose to momentarily leave  after hearing the cockpit voice recordings; in a flashback, Captain Sullenberger successfully water-lands US Airways 1549.

Act 13: Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles choose to return to the hearing; they are proven right in knowing that both engines were indeed unuseable.

Epilogue: a photographic and video-graphic montage about a reunion between Captain Sullenberger, his wife and the passengers of US Airways Flight 1549.

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