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Review: The Miracle on the Hudson comes to life in the wonderfully acted ‘Sully’

2016-09-16-sully-movie-posterBy MARK VIOLA

Bad news is easy to find. Just turn on your television and you’ll see stories about terrorism, tragedy, war, violence, unrest and conflict. We’ve had our own bad news of late with the arrival of Hurricane Hermine and the devastation it left behind.

So, the idea of escaping into a movie felt much less like a cliché when I went to see “Sully,” the new film directed by Clint Eastwood (“American Sniper”). It stars Tom Hanks (“Bridge of Spies”) and follows the very true story of the Miracle on the Hudson.

If you’re one of the few not familiar with the incident, here are the basics. On Jan. 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 left LaGuardia Airport in New York City en route to Charlotte, N.C. Only minutes into the flight, however, the plane struck a flock of geese and lost thrust in both engines, forcing Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks) to attempt a water landing in the middle of the frigid Hudson River. Amazingly–miraculously even–he was successful and all 155 people onboard survived.

I remember hearing about the incident the day it happened and the subsequent media firestorm that immediately surrounded Sully and the rest of those involved. It was obvious at the time that someone, somewhere, was going to turn the story into a movie. It was only a matter of time and frankly I’m surprised it took seven years.
But here we are, with Eastwood and Hanks, along with Aaron Eckhart (“The Dark Knight”) as co-pilot Jeff Skiles and Laura Linney (“Mr. Holmes”) as Sully’s wife Lorraine.

The story focuses on both the incident itself as well as the days that followed, with the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) investigating what happened and attempting to determine if Sully indeed made the right decision.

And the result is not a perfect film, but it is one that very much captures the moment in question and left me feeling better than when I arrived.

The biggest question going in is how do you make a full-length movie about an event that lasted 208 seconds from bird strike to landing on the water. Sure, there is more to it than that, but how you tell the story is just as important as the event itself.

And to do that, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, using Sully’s own biography as a basis, go for a non-linear approach, beginning with the immediate aftermath and only jumping back to the incident itself later. This results in us seeing Sully struggling to deal with the emotional effects of the water landing as well as the sudden fame, interspersing events we do know about, such as his interviews and appearances on late-night television, with the ones we don’t, including him reminiscing with Skiles and dealing with the NTSB investigation.

On one hand, this is probably the smartest way to go about it, so the most intense moment of the film doesn’t happen in the opening minutes, but it also leaves the audience, at least myself, spending much of the first act awaiting that actual Miracle on the Hudson. It was only later into the second act and especially the third that Eastwood and Komarnicki’s plan is revealed, and the story’s structure becomes clear. I honestly think I’ll enjoy the movie more the second time through–and I do plan on seeing it again–but that doesn’t negate the fact that some might find the first act a bit on the slow side.

The pacing issues also reveal themselves again in the final act, namely in the last 10 minutes or so. I won’t spoil the ending, but there comes a moment where several characters have a rather abrupt change of attitude, and before we really get a chance to digest this shift, the movie is suddenly over. It’s not a huge knock, but because it’s literally the final scene, it stuck with me more than it might have otherwise.

Much of the film is devoted to the NTSB investigation, and although any film such as this will play more or less loosely with the facts, I’m going to assume they stayed relatively true to life depicting these moments. And the result is a surprisingly compelling story, especially since we know how it ultimately turned out. They do a good job of keeping you guessing, and there is a point where I began to question what I thought I knew all this time. That’s also when I knew this movie had succeeded in what it was attempting to do.

And it wouldn’t have succeeded without the performance we get from Hanks. That’s not to say he was alone. Eastwood typically gets the most from his cast, and he does here as well, with Eckhart a notable standout, bringing a swagger and confidence to play foil to Sully’s insecurities.
“Sully” does have its pacing problems, but the story itself overcomes them, and this is a movie I can highly recommend.

The film is rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.

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