Down to Earth Ace
By Michael S. Goldberger
Director Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” detailing the little-told backstory of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’ is a competently dramatized paean to a very deserving hero, and much more entertaining than I had anticipated. Sure, Tom Hanks is going to be as good as ever, and Eastwood will bring his journeyman skill to the work. But in capturing the idea of a human being functioning at his very best, Todd Komarnicki’s swell adaptation of the book, “Highest Duty,” by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, puts it all across.
As you may have surmised by now in your traipse on this mortal Earth, our species is capable of both terrible and wonderful things, the bulk of us happily preferring the latter pursuit. Too often unable to discern the small, commonplace heroics hardworking folks accomplish almost every day, coupled with the absolute horror that the nefarious segment of our population regularly perpetuates, we pine for saviors… high relief examples of our better nature. When these brave souls arrive just in the nick of time to save the day, we luxuriate in the chance to lionize them.
Thus, it only follows that if if any suspicious detractor ventures to besmirch and then snatch this good guy or gal from our therapeutic idolization, we get darn indignant. How dare they? Such is the case shortly after the January 15, 2009, casualty-free landing of U.S. Airway’s Flight #1549. While the world is busy extolling the courage of Captain Sullenberger, naming streets and babies after him, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has thoughts and plans otherwise. Our better sense says they do important, indispensable stuff, while the skeptical we wonders what powers that be deem to cast a pall on what can only seem wondrous and great.
You see, there’s an astute movie thing filmmaker Eastwood does here in order to bring suspense to a story that otherwise seemed apparent and without hidden subtext. He bewilders the audience by substituting one tension for another. Going in, we all know what happened. Sully performed a water landing that facilitated the survival of all 155 passengers and crew. But suddenly there’s trouble anew when the NTSB, represented in the film by characters who seem more like a star chamber, calls it a “crash.” Gosh, it sure has all the earmarks of a witch hunt.
Flashing forward and back in a simple, classical style, bits of expository filigree are gathered, giving us a peek into the making of the Air Force ace who would ultimately shine in the scant few seconds fate would allot after a gaggle of Canadian Geese fouled his engines. He’s the All-American boy, a high school scholar whose Denison, Texas, roots created in him a trademark modesty. While we lately suffer the showboat antics of far too many athletes, we really prefer our icons graciously terse and bereft of bravado, like the cowboy film stars of early Hollywood. You know: “Aw shucks, ma’am…tweren’t nothin’.”
In that vein, the recurring thought shared by Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) as they are holed up in the New York Marriott during what seems like an inquisition at the hands of the NTSB, is, “We did our jobs.” But not content that the proof is in the pudding, the independent government body contends, via computer simulation models, that Captain Sullenberger could have safely landed his aircraft at either LaGuardia or Teterboro airports. To our chagrin, they make a curiously convincing case. We kind of doubt it, but are nonetheless engaged. Hey, what’s going on here?
Tom Hanks, perfectly cast for his credibility and built-in integrity, represents our ideal…the everyman in all his potential nobility, affronted by the NTSB’s implications, but too polite to castigate what may be self-serving ulterior motives in the guise of airline safety. Phone calls between him and his wife (Laura Linney) paint a scene of domestic typicalness now being haunted by the cynical notion that no good deed goes unpunished. Aaron Eckhart’s second in command is played as the loyal sidekick who is quite in awe of his superior’s valor under fire.
Of course we have our own little agenda for re-living in the movie theater what we doubtless witnessed ad nauseam on the news for days afterwards. The practice goes as far back as our oral histories….even before caveman Oog, Achilles and Odysseus wowed us with their prowess and fortitude.
It’s a self-congratulatory tradition wherein we anoint a specific example of human virtuousness as our reigning champion, and accord him or her with a near mythological importance. Here, by dissecting the event, vividly examining its parts and interspersing them with the numerous, mitigating circumstances, the director celebrates how “Sully” became a household name.
“Sully,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart and Laura Linney. Running time: 96 minutes