Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Premise: Based on a true story. Following midflight engine failure, US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) lands his Airbus in the Hudson River. In the aftermath he copes with fame and an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
What Works: Sully is partly a character study and partly a procedural. Tom Hanks is cast in the title role as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and it’s a good match between an actor and a role. In the latter half of his career, Hanks has made a niche for himself as a modern day Jimmy Stewart; Hanks’ movie star persona has many of the same qualities as Stewart and Hanks’ roles in movies like Bridge of Spies and Captain Phillips are of a piece with Stewart’s performances in The Glenn Miller Story and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Hanks isn’t pushing himself as an actor in Sully but it’s the kind of role he does well. Supporting Hanks is Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeff Skiles. He doesn’t do much except back up his captain but Eckhart injects some sarcastic humor into the movie which he does quite effectively. Sully was directed by Clint Eastwood and the movie is interesting as a follow up to 2014’s American Sniper. Both films deal with real life characters who have become national heroes and who cope with post-traumatic stress. There is something essentially American about Sully and American Sniper’s high regard for the humble but proficient expert whose competence saves lives. In Sully it is the pilot’s quick thinking and aviation skill that allows him to save the people aboard the flight. Like the casting of Hanks in the lead role, this is a good match of a director and a subject and Eastwood and Hanks do an excellent job of making Sullenberger an accessible and empathetic character. As is expected, the centerpiece of Sully is the reenactment of the water landing. Historical dramatizations aren’t usually celebrated for their special effects, but the visuals in this film are exceptional. The rendering of the plane and the New York City skyline is done with great detail and the Hudson River sequence is more exciting than many action set pieces in Hollywood tent pole films.
What Doesn’t: Anybody who followed the “Miracle on the Hudson” story in 2009 knows how this turns out and the film doesn’t reveal much. The actual event, from birds striking the engines to the plane landing on the water, only lasted a few minutes and the movie is strained under the need to inflate matters to a feature length story. As a result, Sully feels padded. The water landing sequence is replayed three different times. Each version has a slightly different approach but they aren’t so different as to significantly alter the viewer’s understanding of the landing. Since the audience already knows what happened, the filmmakers focus instead on the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. In the movie, the NTSB investigators are the villains as they second guess Captain Sullenberger and his crew, arguing that the plane could have landed at a nearby airport, rendering the water landing unnecessary. The movie successfully plays on the public’s affection for Sullenberger and their aversion to bureaucracy but the drama feels contrived. For one thing, the crew of US Airways Flight 1549 was universally celebrated as heroes and there’s no hint that the NTSB hearings would have changed that. And for another, the stakes are never concrete. The life and death circumstances of the water landing are so severe that the hearings pale in comparison. There are hints of other story elements that might have led somewhere. It is established that Sully has difficulty coping with fame, that he is suffering through post-traumatic stress, and that his family faces financial hardship. But none of those ideas are developed into a meaningful story and most of them aren’t resolved at all.
Bottom Line: Sully is a well-made dramatization of a historical event. The film doesn’t challenge or enhance our understanding of the “Miracle on the Hudson” but it does tap into exactly what made the story resonate so powerfully with the public and it is an effective tribute to the people involved.
Episode: #612 (September 18, 2016)