Films based on real events and characters have not drummed up much box office business. For example, look at how little interest moviegoers showed in the story about miners trapped underground in “The 33” or boxer Roberto Duran in “Hands of Stone.”
The majority of films based on real events aren’t like “Titanic,” where the sinking of the ship was the backdrop for a love story that lured millions. When audiences know how the story ends, they’re hesitant to plop down the price of admission to watch the inevitable.
Enter the next film in the genre, “Sully.” It’s the big-screen adaptation of the January 2009 event in which Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed his damaged plane in the Hudson River and saved the lives of 155 people.
The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, shows the flight and water landing but mostly focuses on the immediate aftermath – from the nightmares the crew had to the investigation that suggested Sullenberger’s actions might not have been as heroic as people thought.
You would have had to be living in a cave not to know how this story ends. Despite being armed with that knowledge, the film delivers a compelling story of what it means to make monumental decisions without time to think, the real difference between a hero and someone doing his or her job and how even the strongest people in a crisis can eventually doubt themselves.
There are three things that make the movie worth seeing.
Tom Hanks turns in another remarkable performance as the heroic pilot, taking on another role as an everyday person pressed into extraordinary action. Hanks has a wonderful knack for playing the everyman. It’s a tough role because the real Sullenberger is such a low-key person. Hanks has to show a broad range of emotions while trapped within the limitations of the role. He can turn a single look into a moment of joy or a cry for help.
The second strength comes from Eastwood, who has a no-nonsense approach to directing. He understands that trying to play this story as too heroic or too mundane would set the production in a death spiral. He finds just the right level of respect for the situation to tell the tale without bluster.
Eastwood films the short flight in such a way that he takes the audience into the cockpit. The flight team has only seconds to respond, and the audience feels each tick of the clock.
Finally, the script by Tom Komarnicki blends both the public story of the water landing and aftermath of the events going on behind the scenes. A simple line – like one about New York needing some good news, especially with an airplane – emphasizes that this event was about more than just one plane full of passengers being saved.
This mixes well with the personal story cleverly told through phone conversations between Sully and his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney). It is the acting skills of Hanks and Linney that makes the long-distance calls feel intimate. This is one of the elements that goes beyond the headlines.
Don’t dismiss this film because you watched the news reports. This movie takes off and flies high because it’s a reminder that people are the heart of any story. This wasn’t just a plane that went into the water. There were 155 people on that Airbus A320.