Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy but not today, punk

US Airways Flight 1549 was headed to Charlotte, a review of ‘Sully’

By Jonathan Shuping

September 9, 2016

When I was in driver’s ed at 15, I was absolutely terrified of flunking my driving test like Josh Brolin in The Goonies or Corey Haim in License to Drive. The humiliation! My mother offered these words of wisdom: “Learning to drive is like learning how to ride a bike. No matter how many books you read on it or how much you listen to someone talk about it, the only way to really get good at it is through experience.” But I never attempted to park my car on a body of water.

Over the past two decades, Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven) has steadily reinvented himself, transitioning from playing the hero in shootouts to shooting heroes from behind the camera. From American Sniper to Flags of Our Fathers, he is obviously skilled at immortalizing larger-than-life protagonists. Eastwood’s latest, Sully, stars Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both engines shortly after takeoff. (Trivia: Before those geese intervened, Sully’s fateful flight was bound for Charlotte.)  

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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

There is nothing extraordinarily stylized about Eastwood’s direction, but his assured, reverent approach is perfectly suited for this story of modern heroism, and Todd Komarnicki’s script mixes in a good amount of humor to break the tension before it ever feels too heavy or too technical and gives the audience a sigh of comic relief. The editing hits some turbulence at the start, as there are flashbacks from the days immediately following the event to Sully’s first flying lessons, to his service in the Air Force, and of course to the fateful day of, layered in with the perspectives of air traffic control, the Hudson River ferry boat crews, and the passengers of the flight, but by the second act it reaches a comfortable cruising altitude and beverage service can happen.   

Hanks is amazing as usual, as his portrayal of Sully is composed and respectful. He is able to subtly emanate humility, pride, worry and confidence from a glance or with a cadence, not all of the shouting and bursting into tears that most Best Actor nods seem to require, though it’s certainly worthy. Aaron Eckhart also gives a fine performance as Sully’s loyal co-pilot, Jeff Skiles. He effortlessly bounces from wise-cracking sarcasm to utter admiration for his friend and mentor.  

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Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot, Jeff Skiles. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

In fact, everyone seems to admire the Captain, from cabbies to bartenders to hotel managers. Everyone, that is, except the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), who collectively believe that, based on mechanical data and computer simulations, Sully could have made it back to the airport safely and that his heroic water landing actually put the lives of the 155 passengers at greater risk, while Sully maintains that his wisdom through experience outweighs any extent of engineering knowledge. As he says, “there’s no precedent for something that’s never happened before.”  

Most of the story centers around the NTSB investigation and subsequent hearing which is an inspiring, funny, and powerful climax. There is also a great representation of post-9/11 New York as both first responders and citizens alike rose courageously and instinctively to the occasion as if to say to the potential tragedy, “Not again.  Not on our watch.” Finally, there was the theme of the reluctant hero with Sully simultaneously balancing the grueling interrogations of the NTSB, the intense spotlight thrust on him by the media, and the overwhelming acclaim from everyone else.

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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Heroes don’t always choose to be. George Washington sometimes felt that he was the wrong man for the job. Han Solo was midway through The Empire Strikes Back before he bought in. Some seek out greatness while others are remembered as heroes because of the events of their time and how they responded. After all, adversity reveals a person’s true character.

I learned to become a good driver through repetition and despite many mistakes behind the wheel in normal and abnormal conditions alike, and I’ve managed to keep myself alive long enough to get from here to there. Captain Sully found himself in the cockpit of a commercial jet under circumstances that had never been encountered by a pilot before, and thanks to his experience, he was able to not only survive but to save the lives of all 155 souls on board.  

Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

To which, Clint Eastwood responded, “Not today, punk.”

Star Rating: 4¼ out of 5 stars

Read: Don’t Breathe Redefines What Horror Can Be

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