I was surprised to learn that Clint Eastwood's latest film was being released on September 9. Did award season get moved up? I wondered. Then I saw Sully and realized what a crafty, gut-wrenching stunt Eastwood had pulled off. On the weekend of the anniversary of the Twin Towers attacks, audiences would be watching a movie memorializing an event that the director has very consciously framed as the country's anti-9/11.
And they'll be watching for a long time to come, because Sully is one hell of a film. The director may be 86 and known to converse with the occasional chair, but his vision, instincts and skills are as sharp as ever. It doesn't hurt that Tom Hanks is at the top of his game as Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the most famous pilot in modern history.
I was surprised, too, to learn that Eastwood's latest was about Sullenberger, I have to admit. What can he do with this stiff? I wondered, imagining a movie designed to turn the white-haired guy we've watched on TV for years, commenting on one air disaster after another, into an action hero. I should've known the Oscar-winning director had a trick up his sleeve.
Or half a dozen. This is a picture that works on multiple levels and proves to be a pleasant, powerful surprise on every one. We all know what happened on January 15, 2009. Sullenberger and copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, also excellent) launched U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into the sky over LaGuardia. They barely had time to banter about lunch plans before a flock of geese smashed into the plane and shredded its engines.
We know the plane lost thrust, yet the captain somehow kept his cool and landed it safely in the river, despite the lack of power and the notorious perils of water landings (Cast Away, anyone?). The image of the crash's 155 survivors — i.e., everyone on board — balancing on the aircraft's wings as if they were giant surfboards is among the indelible ones of our age. Within hours, Sully was one of the most famous and celebrated human beings on the planet.
Yet it turns out there was so much we didn't know. For example, while the world was hailing Sully as a hero, the National Transportation Safety Board was running computer simulations to make the case that he panicked and could have made it safely back to LaGuardia. We may not know that Sully and Skiles were kept essentially under hotel arrest and prevented from returning home. Or that Sully was eventually haunted by self-doubt and confessed to his wife (Laura Linney) his fear that "Maybe I blew it." Eastwood slips in chilling fantasy sequences of the pilot's worst nightmare: the plane losing lift over New York and piercing skyscraper after fireballing skyscraper.
The scenes of the NTSB hearings are a master class in creating movie tension (even if they are fudged a bit). And, when Eastwood finally brings you aboard the fateful flight, you won't need an attendant to remind you to remain in your seat. You wouldn't be able to extricate yourself if you wanted to.
The film's grace note is its portrayal of what happened after the ditch. Within minutes — 24, to be exact — help arrived from every direction. Without a single SOS being sent, commuter ferries and private choppers descended on the scene to lend assistance, quickly followed by police, firefighters and other first responders. This was a day, Eastwood reminds us, when terror didn't get the better of New York but instead brought out the best in it and was overcome. Rarely has a release date been more perfectly timed.