There are a couple of objections one would have to the idea of making a movie out of Captain Chesley Sullenberger and the heroic way in which he managed to safely land a crashing plane on the Hudson River. First of all, you’d be hard pressed to get more than fifteen minutes of movie out of recreating the fateful “Miracle on the Hudson”, which lasted just a couple of minutes (208 seconds according to the movie). Second of all, is the fact that Sullenberger is as far as you can get from a controversial figure. Everyone except Matt Damon’s character in 30 Rock agrees he is a hero for saving the lives of all those passengers, and everyone knows agreeable admiration doesn’t make for good drama. Even ignoring those two major concerns, you’d still have to contend with the fact that the movie Flight, starring Denzel Washington, exists and was almost transparently inspired by these events (and which added extra drama by making its lead character an alcoholic).
All of those objections, paired up with the fact that this movie is directed by Clint Eastwood -a director who has made great films in the past, but who has adopted an antiseptic aesthetic that has only grown boring and lazy in the thirteen years since Mystic River– would be enough to keep at a safe distance from Sully… but then again, the movie stars Tom Hanks. Now, of course Hanks would be the man to play the quintessential all-American hero of our times, but while his casting is far from bold, the man has been having a fascinating career as of late. I used to strongly dislike Hanks –Forrest Gump is probably to blame- but the last five or so years have seen him doing career-best work in strong movies such as Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies, as well as elevating mediocre projects like Saving Mr. Banks.
Turns out Hanks’s Sully isn’t quite as extraordinary as some of his latest work. In fact, he feels very much like a mash-up of his Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies characters, which makes his performance not necessarily exciting, but quite effective. The really surprising news is that Sully is actually not that bad of a movie. It ends up working quite nicely as a heartfelt tribute to the heroism not only of the Captain but the many people who assisted in the mission despite a couple major missteps.
But let’s start with the positive. There are certain moments in Sully that work as a lovely tribute to a generous spirit of solidarity and selflessness. The Captain insists that he and his crew “were just doing their job”, and there is something truly admirable in this old-fashioned idea of simply being professional and being humble as a person who is burdened by the task of keeping people safe. The same can be said of the respectful way in which the New York coastguard and fire department are portrayed in the movie. The rescue sequence is quite touching, especially when its images call back the tragedy of 9/11, and position this event as a coming together of people whose job is to keep people safe. The woman sitting behind me sniffled throughout.
Similarly, the recreation of the crash is very well done. Eastwood is not a particularly flashy director, but he (and the visual effects team) spices things up just enough to make the sequence appropriately tense, which must have been difficult since every person watching the movie will know the outcome of the accident ahead of time. The trick is pulled off by focusing on the details of the procedure of trying to successfully land a plane that has lost both its engines. What Eastwood is going for here is detail in realism, and he is quite successful at achieving it, be it through the quiet blandness of the La Gaurdia control room, or the evocative recreation of the cold light of a winter morning in New York.
That being said, there are some big problems with this movie. First of all is the fact that, as suspected, there isn’t much drama to be mined out of this story beyond those 208 minutes. To remedy this, the movie focuses on the aftermath of the Water Landing, most specifically, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation of what exactly went wrong during the flight. The movie very clearly casts the people on the board as the villains of the piece, suggesting they weren’t as much trying to figure out what went wrong in order to keep things safe in the future (you know, their job) as much as they were out to get the blood of the heroic Captain Sullenberger because they are a bunch of suits who have never piloted a plane and don’t know what the hell they’re talking about because they weren’t there.
I don’t know if Eastwood’s treatment of the NTSB is better described as anti-intellectual or pro-individualism, but it sure as hell doesn’t mesh well with the movie’s supposed message of solidarity. It could also have worked a little better if the board members’ characterization didn’t make them seem as complex as an 80s cartoon villain. And especially if the movie’s last and most triumphant beat weren’t these board members apologizing to Sully and admitting they were wrong, making it seem like sticking it to the these people who were essentially doing their job is more important to Eastwood than the acts of the many people that came together and rescued the passengers.
There are other things that don’t work. The dialogue is incredibly clunky and often risibly bad (but what else is new considering Eastwood’s history of disliking re-writes). The wasting of the great Laura Linney in the role of Sully’s wife is so bad someone should press charges. And the handling of Sully’s PTSD after the incident is as obvious and uninspired as the handling of the protagonist’s PTSD in American Sniper. Almost every scene outside of the crash sequence doesn’t quite work. It’s thanks to Hanks and the supporting cast that there is any spark to those other scenes at all. He might not be doing career-best work, but he has become always dependable, and solid as a rock.
Grade: 6 out of 10