I’m a bit of a fan of The Graham Norton Show. I’ve written about it before, but I like in particular the unfussy way that Norton brings all of his guests on at once, allows them to chat to each other, yet still get across what they’re on the programme for.
Last week’s guest was Tom Hanks, who’s been doing promotional duties for the renamed-for-the-UK Sully: Miracle On The Hudson. It’s the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who successfully landed a passenger jet on the Hudson River in New York, saving the lives of all 155 people as he did so. It sounds spoilery saying that, but this is where the film starts.
Hanks, asked to describe the film, eloquently explained that the film followed what happened next, and the extended investigation into that flight, and whether ‘Sully’, who Hanks plays, or his co-pilot Jeff Skiles, played in the film by Aaron Eckhart, were in any way to blame. Listening to Hanks tell the story, I felt outrage and injustice building up inside me. Watching Clint Eastwood’s dramatisation of Sully’s story, meanwhile, failed to have the same effect. And it was Hanks’ interview that crystalised why.
Sully is a good film, I should make that clear. But Eastwood – who keeps the running time down to a wonderfully lean hour and a half with a bit of change – seems to only fully engage with the heroic part of the story. Eastwood loves his hero stories, and when he follows the doomed flight, it’s terrific cinema. He shows us the plane and its passengers, but when the camera focuses on Hanks in the cockpit, it’s utterly gripping. Likewise, the arresting external sequences of the flight – and one or two representations of the nightmares that Sully has been enduring – are incredibly effective and jolting. The part of the story I knew already was the one that was affecting me as if I didn’t.
When the focus changes – and Eastwood, working from a screenplay by Todd Komarnicki, ensures the chronology of events is deliberately scattered – the film never sinks below interesting, but also settles into something more standard. For as unfair as the subsequent investigation is portrayed, the film also presents it as going through the motions, that surely would build to an untroubling conclusion. Eastwood can easily film people in a room with furrowed brows, and that’s what he does. There’s little spark or overt challenge to the drama. Peter Berg with Deepwater Horizon, or Paul Greengrass with pretty much everything he touches, have demonstrated how to wring much more tension and conflict from true life stories. Eastwood’s heart doesn’t seem to be in part of his film, though.
But he does have a trump card. His masterstroke is his casting. For a film about a down to earth, modern day hero, Tom Hanks’ name must have bubbled to the top of a very short wishlist in double quick time. Hanks makes this look so easy. His take on Sully is of a calm, professional man, to whom the job – and doing it properly – matters. He keeps his emotions below the surface – we do get the odd hint of them in blink and you miss them sequences with his wife, played by Laura Linney – and his deliberate and diligent performance is wonderful. There was a time when I was a little torn on Tom Hanks films, but those days are long gone. He adds humanity and gravitas to every project he tackles, and Sully is notably better for it.
The lean running time means that Eastwood cuts away as much of the rest of the story as he can get away with, and I did end up wondering if Sully was one of those rare cases where another five to ten minutes wouldn’t hurt (in fact, so quiet and unassuming was the ending, I thought for a minute the movie hadn’t actually finished). But it’s not bad, this. We get a film that covers the bases, a Sully 101 if you will, anchored by an actor who seems to be getting better with every performance.
Sully: Miracle On The Hudson is in UK cinemas from Friday.