Heroism is at once one of the easiest and the most difficult character trait to portray on the silver screen. It is practically the fundamental basis for the concept of the protagonist, but to convey it in a way that resists valorizing and empty praise is something else entirely. In Sully, the retelling of one of the most uniformly positive events in recent memory, the successful water landing of an Airbus A320 with no fatalities, Clint Eastwood achieves this and more, creating a profoundly mixed experience. It deals not only with the hero, but the world around him, never villifying but always probing to reveal the human nature of almost every figure, including the character of New York City. Through this series of portraits, Sully’s heroism becomes all the more satisfying and true to life—as in all legends, only through many trials can one become truly great, and in this manner the film mirrors its subject.
As the film opens, it unexpectedly displays without explanation what could have been, as Eastwood smash cuts between the opening credits and Sully’s nightmare of a disastrous attempt of an alternate attempt to land US Airways Flight 1549. It is only the first of many events that display what eventually becomes the driving conflict of the film: Sully’s relationship with his sudden fame, especially in light of the stressful circumstances. The first half of the film or so is a constant barrage of outside pressure, running the gamut from lighthearted media appearances to paparazzi to the source of conflict, an official investigation into whether the water landing and inevitable destruction of the aircraft was unnecessarily dangerous (stranding him in New York, across the country from his home in San Francisco). He is forced both by trauma and by habit—a handful of flashbacks back to Sully’s youth show both his consistent interest in flight and his continually quiet and serious temperament—to adopt a certain interiority, where his emotions are continually kept in check, and even the mostly reassuring presences of his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney, who manages to wrangle a full-fledged character despite never appearing without a phone) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (a solid and at times hilarious Aaron Eckhart) do little to bring him out of his shell.
But under the uniquely determined and noble gaze of Tom Hanks, Sully never appears anything less than achingly human. One of the most successful gambits by Eastwood is his willingness to show Sully’s weaknesses and doubts, and Hanks responds in kind. The most remarkable aspect of his performance is his eyes, which convey a disconcerting mix of care, worry, fear, and even a hint of paranoia. Sully has good reason to be paranoid, of course, illustrated most starkly when he goes on a run in New York and stops in a bar where not only his face is plastered on the TV screen, but the owner has made a drink named after him (hilariously concocted from Grey Goose and water). But there is a great deal of nobility to him, a resolute manner that shines through and defines him, that unifies the film even more than the inciting incident that forms the centerpieces.
The other gambit that Eastwood undertakes is to play the already iconic moment three times, each roughly focusing on a different set of important people with Sully and Skiles forming the center in the cockpit. Though there is undoubtedly a cumulative power that builds on each, I found the first version the most viscerally impactful. All three are nevertheless hair-raising in their immediacy, primarily using tight close-ups mixed with expansive CGI shots of the airplane, and relies heavily on an expansive cast of air control operators, first responders, flight attendants, and passengers (some of whom are fleshed out in a beautifully simple manner just before the flight) to convey the urgency of the situation. Much of the second half—the first version occurs at around the midpoint, after the viewer has been submerged in Sully’s tenuous mindset—is taken up by these replays (to use Bordwell’s term), but none of them feel extraneous, developing the idea that Sully voices in the final scene, that he wouldn’t have been able to land the plane without every single person involved.
And the most important aspect of this statement is that Sully believes in this idea, and that the fundamental humanity that proves Sully’s correct judgment in front of the official investigation radiates out to every person. It is a profoundly honest film, willing to show for instance how some people panicked and nearly lost their lives trying to swim away from the airplane, or how the specter of 9/11 still hangs over the public consciousness. Eastwood’s use of footage of a reunion of the Captain and the lives he saved is an extension of this idea, showing that, as the landing showed, there is a fundamental heroism in humanity, whether it be in one figure or in all.