Cinematic Releases: Sully (2016) - Reviewed

The new film by Clint Eastwood about the true story of airline captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), aka ‘Sully’, is a biopic examining the behind the scenes drama surrounding the emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009 and the aftermath which followed.  Dramatizing the event seen on live television across the nation, the first collaboration between director Eastwood and actor Hanks is being billed as the ‘untold story’ surrounding the national hero’s successful landing of the aircraft, his background in aviation experience and the humble yet haunted figure at the epicenter.  

Far less controversial than the director’s previous film American Sniper and as such far less compelling, Sully is less of a captivating character study than it is a reenactment of the event for the sake of the Alexa IMAX 65mm cameras and a tribute to the man the French electronic band College couldn’t help but pay respects to with their song A Real Hero.  To date it is the shortest film Clint Eastwood has directed, clocking in at only 96 minutes, and while it utilizes the same chronological shifting of past and present seen in American Sniper its intentions are closer to Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center: a simple, direct, unpretentious tribute to an act of heroism.

Much has been made of the film’s cinematographic aspects, being the first film shot almost entirely with the new digital Alexa IMAX 65mm camera at an aspect ratio of approximately 1.90:1.  Released simultaneously in 2.40:1 matted widescreen in general release venues as well as select 35mm print releases, this is one of those movies which definitely shows what the technology can do while also mostly being a modestly sized Eastwood drama.  Outside of the emergency landing reenactment, most of Sully is comprised of medium close-ups of the actors and is mostly spent in offices, homes and courtrooms, making it an unusual choice for the IMAX camera.  Tom Stern’s cinematography sports Eastwood’s usual penchant for muted colors and soft, unspectacular lighting, again begging the question why the first film shot almost entirely with IMAX cameras should be this one.  That said, Alexa IMAX 65MM when seen properly in an IMAX venue is as close to 70mm film exhibition as digital photography and projection has ever come, for now.  Scenes of aerial photography do indeed sport a depth of field and sharpness unseen in previous digitally photographed movies as well as a more realistic looking frame rate and detail on the actors’ faces is stronger than you’d expect from digital.  While it still has a long way to go before it can actually compete with the splendor of true 70mm, it’s a step in the right direction.

Cameras aside, performances are generally good with Tom Hanks imbuing the titular Sully with confidence and calm while harboring anxieties and fears over the situation, and Aaron Eckhart is equally strong as Sully’s co-pilot Jeff Skiles.  At the same time, the film is generating controversy from the National Transportation Safety Board investigators, saying the film fictionalizes the team’s attempts to smear Sully in the investigative hearings.  Eastwood has always included one-dimensional stereotypical villains in his movies, some more obvious than others, but rarely have they drawn as much ire from the real people involved as they have here.  

For a film so lightweight on the content and running time outside of recreating an extraordinary event, I suppose they had to include a dramatic conflict of some kind even if it’s a complete fiction.  At the end of the day, melodrama and IMAX cameras can’t possibly amaze the eye as much as footage of the real thing you can look up online.  While a neat experience and a new major step forward in cinematography technology, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t underwhelmed by Eastwood’s latest.  It’s worth seeing for the IMAX footage but as with most Eastwood features, which are so direct and obvious that you get everything in the first try, there’s not much reason to rewatch it a second time.

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- Andrew Kotwicki