15 January 2009. Disbelieving eyes look skyward from apartments and offices in horror as US Airways flight 1549 careens dangerously close to Manhattan rooftops before pitching into the Hudson River. The key to Sully‘s edge-of-your-seat success – and successful it is – is veteran director Clint Eastwood’s ability to render the well-documented event and astonishing outcome as tense and immediate. He does so masterfully, no least by opening the film with nightmarish images of an aircraft hurtling into buildings, creating a fireball reminiscent of fateful footage from a little over seven years previously, etched in the collective US memory.
Spliced in between black screens over the credit sequence, terrifying sound and image is cut short as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) wakes from a frightful, fitful sleep, dreaming of what might’ve been. It’s a ballsy and striking move which pays off. As one of many colleagues to later congratulate Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) says, it is refreshing to have good news about New York City and an aeroplane and the film’s overarching positivity is welcome and well-constructed. Whatever may be said about the now 86-year-old director’s questionable politics, his dramatisation of the miraculous water landing and safe rescue of 155 passengers and crew is a breathless, moving, sterling work by one of America’s true filmmaking greats.
Aaron Eckhart, sporting surely one of the finest moustaches in cinema history, is a consistently funny, straight-shooting foil to Hanks’ eponymous leading man. Neither crave the limelight, and the latter’s bemused disorientation when faced with an overwhelming media circus is underplayed with consummate ease by the ever-reliable Hanks. In spite of their soaring occupation, there’s a grounded and humble practicality to character and performance from both that is refreshing for an American film which doesn’t bang Uncle Sam’s drum too hard. Confronted by an NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) inquest that seeks to first assign blame rather than praise, the injustice they suffer is palpable and constitutes one half of a film that flits from and to the morning in question.
Where Sully fails is in a supporting cast that comes nowhere close to the charisma and warmth of its leading men. Some of the turns are deplorably weak, really for lack of material, and furthermore is it possible that not a single person of colour was either on the plane, involved in the rescue operation or part of the consequent investigation? The total absence of any Black or Hispanic actors – there is not a line uttered or even single framing that comes to mind – is as conspicuous as Hanks’ dazzling snow white moustache and hair. This grossly dilutes the galvanising spirit of togetherness for which it strives: of a New York community, in all its wondrous diversity, rallying together in a time of potential distress to rejoice in success.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens