It was a very good morning for producer/director Clint Eastwood’s Sully at today’s 10AM Telluride Film Festival screening. The true story of heroic airline pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s 2009 crash landing into the Hudson River is having its World Premiere this weekend in advance of its U.S. release next Friday (my full video and print review will appear on Tuesday). The Palm Theatre, the Festival’s largest with 650 seats, was packed and folding chairs had to be brought in to accommodate some of those turned away.
Eastwood and cast members Tom Hanks, Laura Linney and Aaron Eckhart received a standing ovation when they entered to introduce the film, but you could hear a pin drop as the gripping film was playing. There was prolonged applause once the end credits began and a second standing ovation when the group took the stage for a post-screening Q&A.
The crowd, which included Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and CEO Dawn Hudson sitting directly in front of me, clearly loved the movie which takes a completely different angle that you might expect if you think you already know the Sully story. I would say based on the kind of response the film is getting here you can add it instantly to the list of Best Picture contenders, with Sully kicking off the Fall awards season on September 9. Certainly I hope it puts Tom Hanks’ name seriously in Best Actor contention.
It is true he already has two Oscars with back to back wins in 1993 and 1994 for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but as I mentioned in my Actor piece earlier today he has been unfairly passed over in recent years for his brilliantly understated but powerful roles in Captain Phillips and last year’s Bridge Of Spies (my favorite movie of 2015). Both those portrayals were, like Sully Sullenberger, quiet heroes, the kind of America and American movies we need more of now. Hanks is just superb here and it would be simple to overlook him because he just makes this all look so easy. Let’s hope the actors branch doesn’t do that again.
Eastwood said the movie was turned down three or four times before he got involved with it and could finally get it made. I remember he had similar problems getting his Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby going too and that worked out well. Hopefully this does as well for the four time Academy Award winner. Eastwood almost didn’t want to make it though, thinking the Sullenberger story was known and had already been told. “I didn’t know where the conflict was. So I read it and of course you get into it with the transportation board hearings and everything, but I realized that his career as he wanted to end it was suddenly put in the balance,” Eastwood said later, telling me when I ran into him in my hotel lobby that it was also the battle between humanity and technology that interested him greatly. The story has been turned into a fascinating film detailing the conflict between Sully and the NTSB’s suggestions that he may have put those 155 lives, including his own, in danger.
Hanks told of his own research with Sully: “He had a copy of the script that I had read, and it was dog-eared, notated, highlighted, paper clipped, with stuff written in his wife’s lipstick, and he walked me through every single page of the screenplay to tell me what was either incorrect, or bad assumptions, or what he felt cut corners in terms of what the truth is. And screenplays are very malleable things. They are not set in stone and quite a lot he was bringing up was a very simple alteration.”
But Hanks said that the screenplay (by Todd Komarnicki based on Sullenberger’s book) always included the emotional, unspoken burden Sully placed on himself that he might have done something to cause the emergency. Eastwood said he wished he had been in on that conversation with Sully, as his own meeting was much less detailed. Still, the director did discuss casting with Sully – asking if the pilot approved of Tom Hanks. He did.
Eastwood also noted that he used actual first responders rather than actors to recreate the rescue once the plane was in the river. “It seemed like the right thing to do. First they know how to operate boats,” he quipped.
Of course, the story happened at the beginning of 2009, less than a decade after 9/11.”People in Manhattan looked out their windows,” Hanks said, “and saw an aircraft flying very low over the Hudson River. That’s a very evocative image and it produces a sense of dread that we do not want to experience again ever in our lifetime. If (co-pilot) Jeff and Sully had not been able to maneuver that plane as perfectly as they did, if they had cut a wing, or it cartwheeled, or if 154 people had died that day, the last thing Manhattan and America needed to see was more dead bodies washing ashore, much less because of a crashed airliner.” Laura Linney, working for the third time with Eastwood, added that, oddly, the whole experience has made her feel better about flying because of the caliber of pilots like Sullenberger. “It was incredibly life affirming because the right person was doing what he should be doing,” she said.
Asked about the process of making movies today, Eastwood said he steers his own course. “Just don’t pay any attention to the trends and just go your own way. To me, story is the king and everything revolves around that. Unfortunately in the movie industry everybody likes to copy whatever is the latest thing. Whatever opened well last weekend is the one, they want to make ten of those. I was lucky enough to be able to avoid that. It’s great if you are in a position to do the things you want to,” he said.
Fortunately Sully is one of those things he wanted to do.