My 2016 BFI London Film Festival experience started last night with a double-bill of Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea (review to follow) and the surprise film. Although the surprise film has disappointed me more often than it delighted me in the five times I attended between 2009 and 2014, it's still usually my favourite event of the festival. There's just something very exciting about going to the cinema when you don't know what you're going to see. Last year, I was in Lisbon during the surprise film screening, so I was glad to get a ticket for this year's event.
I didn't have time to do any more online research as to the likely candidates for the surprise film than a quick scroll through the #surprisefilm hashtag on Twitter. Looking through people's guesses online often creates overly high expectations, I have found, but on the plus side, at least if one of the suggested films gets picked, you might know a little about it — and the running time, which is quite crucial when you've just got out of another 2h15 film and there are no working female loos in the Odeon Leicester Square!
London Film Festival Director Clare Stewart and her colleagues were having a little fun this year ahead of the reveal ("did you book a surprise film?" / "I thought you were going to do it") but they must have known they were onto a winner. What kind of audience would be disappointed with the selection of a Clint Eastwood film in which Tom Hanks plays the 'hero of the Hudson'? That's right: this year's surprise film was Sully. It was a safe choice, for sure, and as someone who has sat through epic Chinese-language martial arts films and Michael Moore invectives in past surprise films, I was very happy to get a preview of an upcoming blockbuster, even if it is one that is already on general release overseas.
As for the film, it was an exhilarating ride and I enjoyed it a lot. It tells the story of Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger (Hanks), the US Airways pilot who famously landed a plane in the Hudson River after bird strikes took out both engines; notably, all 155 people on board survived. The story reached the UK, of course, and indeed, I flew into New York just two weeks after the 'water landing' ("it wasn't a crash," Sully insists), apparently without concern, but I don't think I ever heard much of the follow-up story.
Eastwood's film opens as Sully has already made the landing but is having nightmares in which he is flying a plane right through the middle of New York's Midtown, crashing into the skyscrapers in horrific fashion. Meanwhile, as the whole nation hails him as a hero, he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are called into meetings with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who say that the evidence suggests that after the engines failed, Sully could indeed have landed the plane safely at La Guardia airport or another nearby New Jersey airport. Sully initially is confident that he did the right thing in the situation — his actions based on four decades of flight experience — but the doubts soon begin to creep in. Is he really a hero or is he a fraud?
In many ways, Sully has more in common with David Fincher's The Social Network than with, say, Robert Zemeckis's Flight, a hugely fictionalised version of the story, in which Denzel Washington's Whip Whitaker, manages to land a rapidly disintegrating plane (coincidentally, I also saw this film as a 'surprise film' of sorts at a press/bloggers film showcase). A lot of the film focuses on Sully's NTSB hearings, there are a lot of lawyers and there's a lot of flying/pilot jargon. Eastwood turns this into compelling cinema viewing partly thanks to the quietly convincing performance of Hanks and partly thanks to the various flashbacks we get of the ill-fated flight. Even when you know the outcome, those scenes are still nail-bitingly tense, as is the final run-in with the NTSB where Sully finds out whether or not the human simulations will back up his actions as the right call.
The film is also surprisingly concise for a Clint Eastwood film, running at just 1h36. At times, it veers into melodrama: the scenes with some of the passengers on the flight (the inevitable family who very nearly missed the flight, for example) were a little weak, although I see that there had to be some way of showing the impacts of Sully's actions on the people he saved. I preferred the shots of the real Sully and the real passengers in the end credits — this was a nice touch.
In real-life, the interactions with the NSTB took place over almost 18 months, Aaron Eckhart told us in a Q&A after the film, but were necessarily condensed for the film. Everyone knows the story of Sully, but not what happened with a safety board. Eckhart himself didn't get the chance to meet the real Jeff ("he's an active pilot so he has a busy schedule"). "Sorry for not being Clint Eastwood or Tom Hanks," he quipped when he came on stage (we'd been told to stay in our seats at the end of the film). I don't think anyone was disappointed! He also confirmed that Tom Hanks was indeed the nicest man in Hollywood.
Overall, Sully is a compelling portrayal of a hero — a remarkable man who was exceptionally good at his job. Eastwood's storytelling is often understated — apart from during the fight scenes — but engaging and Hanks's performance, while subtle, perfectly conveys what the real Sully must have gone through as his reputation, his career and even his conscience are put at stake. Thanks, BFI: I approve of this surprise film choice!