‘Tis the season for true stories. Mum’s List and A United Kingdom last week, now boxing drama Bleed For This and Sully, the latest offering from Clint Eastwood. And, after a run of so-so movies (Jersey Boys, J Edgar) that pointed to a fading of his golden touch, it seems it’s on its way back.
This time he’s taken a true story that most of us remember. And, if we don’t recall the actual events, the photographs that emerged on that freezing January day in New York in 2009 are more than familiar. The film tells the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), the pilot at the controls of a flight out of La Guardia when a bird strike caused both engines to fail. Rather than aim for a nearby airport, he landed the plane on the Hudson River, an incident which came to be dubbed The Miracle On The Hudson. All 155 people on board survived.
We know all this right from the start. So how does Eastwood go about making a film where everybody knows the outcome, yet still give it some tension and sense of expectation? Part of his solution is to take a leaf or two out of Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 book, another true story where everybody knows the ending. The audience gets the story it expects, but it’s also shown different perspectives and insights it didn’t know about. In the case of Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, it’s that familiar image of all the passengers on the wings of the plane with water all around them. What the original photographs could never convey was the terrifying reality of the landing, so we see it from the point of view of the passengers and the cabin crew.
We also get to experience it all over again, but this time through the memories of Sully and his first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) as they listen to the recording of the incident. The freezing water gushes into the plane. Sully makes sure everybody gets out of the plane and hands out clothes to help keep them warm. And the just-audible sound that comes from the cabin of the stewardesses yelling in unison “Heads down! Stay down!” over and over again. The impact of the plane on the water doesn’t lose anything second time round. It’s more powerful.
The film isn’t all about re-living the landing. There’s also the side that most people probably wouldn’t have been aware of when it was happening, the inquiry into Sully’s actions, run by a row of hard faced bureaucrats who seem hell bent on proving that he did the wrong thing. But, for all their computer simulations, they ignore the human element, that Sully is an instinctive and highly experienced pilot with over 40 years of flying behind him – crop dusters, military aircraft, commercial aircraft, the lot. The chances of him making a wrong call are slim to the point of negligible.
Eastwood has made a solid, sincere film bearing all the hallmarks of thorough, detailed research. Sully himself played an active role in writing the script and, rather like Paul Greengrass in United 93, Eastwood made a point of people who were involved in the events of that day appearing in the film, this time a number of the first responders. Underlining that authenticity are two great choices in the main roles. Hanks captures the essence of the private man who plays it straight down the line but is something of a swan underneath his apparently calm exterior. And Eckhart is the perfect counterbalance as his loyal first officer, grounded and with a sharp sense of humour. And if anybody is handing out a Best Moustache trophy come the awards season, his name is on it!
Like one of the first responders says to a passenger he’s just fished out of the river, “Nobody dies today.” It’s no spoiler. It applies just as much to Eastwood and his film as it did to that extraordinary day on the Hudson River.
Sully: Miracle on the Hudson opens in UK cinemas in IMAX on Friday, 2nd December