The 35th feature film directed by Clint Eastwood, Sully, like much of his latest work, is a highly proficient, professional, refreshingly unsentimental procedural about men. (It hasn’t always been this way; Changeling (2008) , Million Dollar Baby (2004) and The Bridges of Madison County (1995) are examples of his helmsmanship of solid female-led dramas.)
The workplace in this case is not just the cockpit of a troubled aircraft but the entire infrastructure associated with large-scale commercial aviation. It turns out that the aircraft industry takes every dangerous incident extremely seriously, and, unlike the media – so quick to refer to the pilot of the “miracle on the Hudson” as a “hero” – they are required to react soberly, even skeptically.
It is in all the specific, at times technical details – of how the cockpit functions; of the relationship between pilot, co-pilot, cabin staff and air traffic control; of how such occurrences as Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s 2009 landing of his 737 in the Hudson River get investigated both internally and within the larger auspices of the Federal Aviation Administration – that the movie shines. All that stuff is fascinating. Where it strains is to create drama out of everything outside of the actual emergency, landing and rescue, which all took place over a matter of hours. Essentially, the incident was going to be investigated no matter what, it was, and there you go. The investigation was not a witch hunt and the real man’s life has hardly been destroyed by it. In essence, it is a film about a purely bureaucratic set of meetings set in motion by an out-of-the-ordinary event. To get us riled up, chief investigators Charles Porter and Elizabeth Davis (Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn) are forced to play their roles with a twirled mustache and a sneering lip.
Thankfully, Tom Hanks, playing another Captain of a Big Vessel In Trouble, and Aaron Eckhart, as his co-pilot Jeff Skiles, give honest and somber performances that ground us in the camaraderie of professionals. They seem to know that the only true drama here lies in that big plane landing on that body of water. The rest is all pencil-pushing. No wonder this is Clint’s shortest film. There’s not a lot there.