Sully amounts to a respectable yet unmemorable account of real-life heroism, despite fine performances and capable direction.
Sully takes place in the immediate aftermath of an event known as the “Miracle on the Hudson”; where, in January of 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) managed to safely land their Airbus A320 on the surface of the Hudson River, with both of their engines having been crippled after a flock of Canadian Geese collided with their plane. Following their life-changing experience, Sully and Jeff (Sully especially) find themselves flooded with attention and enthusiastic praise from the public – as well as members of the media, who are eager for an interview with these working-class heroes.
Sully, however, gleans little joy from all this – finding himself not only overwhelmed by being in the spotlight, but also shaken up and haunted by nightmares about what might have happened, had he made the wrong choice. When the National Transportation Safety Board begins the investigation to determine whether or not Sully and Jeff did, in fact, make the right call, Sully finds himself further plagued by doubts and left wondering: did he needlessly endanger the lives of all 155 passengers onboard his plane?
The latest directorial effort from Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, Sully not only has Eastwood behind the camera but also two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks playing its namesake, in order to bring the true story of the “Miracle on the Hudson” to life on the big screen. While there are elements of a great American biopic-turned parable about both the reality of heroic acts and how they are perceived in the 21st century here, other aspects of the film are less effective and prevent Sully from being a captivating portrayal of a real-world “miracle,” as intended.
A number of the best scenes in Sully involve neither flashbacks to the “Miracle on the Hudson” (more on those later) nor the scenes in which Sully and Jeff face-off with those leading the NTSB investigation of the event. Rather, Sully is often at its best during the quieter moments when Sully is jogging around New York at night and/or lost in his thoughts about everything happening around him, thanks to the lovely mood-setting cinematography by Tom Stern (Eastwood’s collaborator since Blood Work in 2002) and a crooning score by Tierney Sutton Band and Christian Jacob (Eastwood also had a hand in the film’s music). These scenes are among the most contemplative in the movie too, weighing in on everything from the nature of heroism to post-9/11 New York and life in the aftermath of the 2008 economic recession.
Unfortunately, the central narrative thread in Sully is that of the NTSB investigation into the “Miracle on the Hudson”: a storyline that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (Perfect Stranger) paint in overt shades of black and white. The dilemma presented here – that it’s possible Sully and his crew’s actions, as undeniably admirable and noble as they were, might have also been unneeded – is most intriguing when the movie portrays it as one with no clear-cut “correct” solution; yet, the NTSB investigators are often ineffectively vilified, before the conflict gets a courtroom drama-style payoff that feels unearned and overly ham-fisted, compared to the better scenes in the film. Much of this plot thread (which makes up a good chunk of Sully) thus comes off as manufactured drama, designed to allow the larger narrative to fill out a feature-length running time.
Sully also (somewhat sporadically) interweaves a handful of flashbacks to Sully’s past into the proceedings here, at the same time returning back to the “Miracle on the Hudson” sequence multiple times, depicting that chain of events from different vantage points. The film was shot almost entirely using digital IMAX cameras; though the subsequent effect of this is negligible for a good portion of the movie (as the film makes heavy use of closeups on people talking), it serves the scenes inside and outside the cockpit and plane during the “Miracle” sequence well. However, after a certain point, the way that Sully keeps revisiting this sequence starts to become repetitious – and similar to the NTSB investigation, it feels a bit like a means of padding the film out to sustain a full three-act narrative, rather than a meaningful addition to Sully’s tale.
Tom Hanks, as you would expect, brings an air of naturalism and humility to working-class Sully; though, the thematic significance of the journey that the movie takes its protagonist on – with respect to its larger narrative – winds up being somewhat underwhelming (an issue that, arguably, Eastwood’s American Sniper also has). Hanks nevertheless has an easy-going chemistry with his main onscreen costar here: Aaron Eckhart, once again proving himself to be a rock-solid character actor. Although the supporting cast features a few familiar faces (including, Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn as a member of the NTSB), the only side player who receives a substantial amount of development is Sully’s wife, Lorraine, played by Laura Linney (Eastwood’s collaborator on Absolute Power and Mystic River). Yet, even those intimate phone conversations between Sully and Lorraine start to feel a bit repetitive too, as the film carries on.
Sully amounts to a respectable yet unmemorable account of real-life heroism, despite fine performances and capable direction. It’s possible the reason the film doesn’t (pardon the wording) fly higher is that the story behind the “Miracle on the Hudson” simply would have been better served by a documentary that could have focused on more of the people that were involved (via in-depth interviews with the crew and passengers), instead of a docudrama that stretches out Sully’s personal experiences during the event to fit the mold of a feature-length film. Nevertheless, Sully is a perfectly decent option for those moviegoers who are in the mood to see a piece of dramatic storytelling for adults… though, a number of them may have already seen what is arguably a better, albeit fictionalized, version of the general story being told here, in the form of Flight.
Sully is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 91 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.
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