For all the weight of the stars behind it, Sully, the new movie about Hudson miracle-maker Chesley Sullenberger, turns out to be dismally average fare.Clint Eastwood, coming off a string of biopics in Invictus, J. Edgar, and American Sniper, obviously doesn’t have much energy left to spare. His latest helping has decent thrills, but it offers little new insight into a news-story most people are already familiar with. Inspiring stories tend to make simplistic, crowd-pleasing movies, and this one doesn’t break the mold.
Sully takes us back to January 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing in the Hudson River after a flock of birds took out both of the plane’s engines. In the do-or-die moments following the birds’ collision, Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a pilot with over 40 years of experience in the air, rejects calls from air traffic controllers to return to the airport, trusting his intuition to guide the plane to the water. Obviously, his gamble pays off. In the aftermath, however, his heroic actions unleash a wave of media attention deeply anathema to his instinctive need for privacy. Meanwhile, a group of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators starts relentlessly pressing him on the details of the flight, triggering bouts of PTSD that throw his relations with his longtime wife (Laura Linney) and children into turmoil. For Sullenberger, the end of the evacuation only marks the beginning of a whole other ordeal.
The fundamental problem with Sully is the opposite of that of most movies: it’s too short. Eastwood really wants to tell two stories with this film: first, that of the personal struggles Sullenberger faced before and after the flight; and second, a blow-by-blow account of what happened on the flight itself, based on the various recollections of Sullenberger, the passengers, the air traffic controllers, and the rescue workers. Yet at only a mere 1.5 hours, the movie simply doesn’t do full justice to all the story-lines Eastwood has jammed into it. One minute it’s over-zealously critiquing the actions of stolid NTSB officials, the next it’s showing us a memory of Sullenberger talking to his flight coach. It never manages to decide what it wants to focus on and consequently becomes little more than a banal, perfunctory tribute to an obviously heroic deed.
Indeed, the posters for Sully advertise it as the “untold story of what went down on the Hudson,” but nothing here suggests Eastwood gave anything more than a cursory glance at his source material. As vivid as they are, the details of the landing – people crying, flight attendants shouting “Brace for impact,” the pilot making the big, gutsy call – don’t differ much from what you’d imagine. Eastwood spends segments of the movie focusing on the stories of a few specific passengers, but his efforts to humanize fail to move us, seeing as we have no idea who these people are, where they’re going, or why it’s particularly unfortunate they happen to be on this flight. And he wastes large quantities of film reel with his insistence on retelling the details of the landing multiple times, first from the passengers’ standpoint, then the cockpit’s. There’s no point in Rashomon- ing an event if new perspectives only serve to reinforce the obvious.
Moreover, you could say the movie’s title is a misnomer. Those who hoped to get to know Sully, the ordinary man who overnight became America’s biggest hero, will end up grasping at straws. Eastwood begins promisingly with a scene of Sullenberger trying to sort through his thoughts the night after the event. Yet aside from a few obligatory scenes of the crying wife and the occasional, hasty flashback of a young boy first discovering his lifelong passion for flying, we learn very little else about Sullenberger’s personal or professional life. Tom Hanks does what he can, but thanks to the limitations of the script, he remains a mere stick figure on camera, aloof, impenetrable and beyond the reach of our sympathy or understanding. (Not to mention he’s also a tad too wide for the part.) To learn what this man is like when the cameras aren’t all pointing at him, you’re just gonna have to read the book.
There’s a scene in Sully where an exasperated Sullenberger mentions to his colleague that “I’ve flown over a million people safely in 40 years, but I’m only going to be remembered for this one thing.” Eastwood’s well-meaning but flawed homage proves him right. The movie allows itself to be seduced by the easy-thrills, action-heavy story of a single perilous accident, dispensing with any greater development or backstory of the man it claims to be about. The average Sunday news “investigative special” would have produced more memorable, meaningful work. We already felt good about this seven years ago, Mr. Eastwood. What else have you got?
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Running Time: 96 minutes
Produced by: Clint Eastwood, Frank Marshall, Tim Moore, Allyn Stewart
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Todd Komarnicki
Based on Sullenberger’s 2012 memoir, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters.
Image of Sullenberger from here.