'Sully' Review

Photo Credit: Warner Brothers Pictures
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It is odd at first glance that a movie like Sully opens on the first full week of September, since a movie with Tom Hanks starring and Clint Eastwood directing would normally open deeper into Oscar season. However, it is either by sheer ironic coincidence or some grander design that a movie like this opens two days before 9/11, as it tells a different true story of a plane in crisis over New York that landed safely, spared everyone and created a living American hero in pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger.

That kind of story and the no-nonsense heroism of an ordinary man is right up Eastwood and Hanks' alley, and plays to both their strengths in some powerful ways. Unfortunately, it doesn't completely fill up a full 90-minute movie, as Eastwood winds up padding the time by demonizing a government safety board and computer simulations, in lieu of the much more compelling parts of Sully's tale.

In mid-January 2009, Captain Sullenberger became an instant hero and media sensation when his plane ran into a flock of birds, and yet he still managed to land the engine-less plane on the Hudson River while keeping all 155 people on board alive. But while Sully is lionized by the press and the people, Eastwood presents an aftermath where the National Transportation Safety Board still picked him apart and used computer simulations to try and prove he could have landed safely at a runaway.

Whether the NTSB was really as determined to prove Sully got it wrong as Eastwood makes it seem is a matter of obvious debate. Nonetheless, it brings back memories of another recent Eastwood film in Trouble with the Curve, which also went out of its way to bash more supposedly modern people who relied on simulations and statistics over the actual human factor. In that case, sabermetrics were deemed inferior to the non-technology based instincts of Eastwood's mostly blind baseball scout, much as stats and simulations are clearly deemed inferior to Sully's instincts.

From Dirty Harry onward, Eastwood has made a career out of villainizing authority figures and know-nothing younger people, at least those who dare to question the methods of his righteous main characters. Even if the NTSB did nitpick Sully to a large extent, it's hard to shake the feeling Eastwood had his own agenda for framing it into such a major part of the movie. Whether the NTSB were merely just sacrificial lambs to stretch Sully into a 90-minute film, or if Eastwood exaggerated things to rail against new technology and supposedly clueless government agencies once again, it does bear a few nitpicks of its own.

Whatever the motivation was, Sully is grounded more often than not whenever this subplot takes over. It is especially frustrating when there are many more fascinating angles and themes to explore otherwise, to say nothing of the recreation of the Miracle on the Hudson.

Since the real flight and forced water landing of Flight 1549 lasted 208 seconds, it is a feat in and of itself that Eastwood gets so much screen time out of that fateful day. Ironic enough, Eastwood actually uses the newfound 21’st century technology of IMAX cameras to recreate it too. Yet while such cameras have usually been used for bombastic action blockbusters and CGI spectacle, Eastwood’s restraint and docudrama tactics during the crisis make the old and new school come together in tense fashion.

This is also where the shadow of 9/11 hangs large over Sully, even if the actual numbers aren’t spoken. But when a few New Yorkers watch Flight 1549 flying low over the city, it isn’t hard to guess what is flashing through their minds and ours as well.

Yet by then, Eastwood has already brought 9/11 style memories to life with not one but two nightmare sequences where Sully imagines crashing into the city. How it will look and play out to see them on this weekend of all weekends is certainly an unavoidable topic. But of course, the whole point is that Flight 1549 wasn’t another Flight 93 or another 9/11 style tragedy.

Not only is that shown through Sully’s actions, but from that of the flight crew and the rescue workers that got everyone out of the water in one piece. In that regard, seeing a story like that on this weekend of all weekends is a necessary reminder of the “best of New York” as the end credit post-script describes. For that matter, seeing a story like this is a necessary reminder on any weekend of this particularly ugly year and time period.

Sully is really a companion piece to United 93 in many ways, even with two vastly different outcomes. Both Eastwood and Paul Greengrass show and film heroism on a plane without any typical Hollywood grandstanding, show how ordinary people can suddenly become heroes, and recreate a catastrophic flight in the rawest way possible. Maybe the comparison falls apart somewhat because terrorism wasn’t an obstacle of Sully’s story, yet the other basic themes and messages largely match up.

Another big difference is that Sully lives to see how he is built up as a hero and an icon, even in the midst of obvious PTSD, his own shyness towards the heavy spotlight and the much more critical scrutiny of the NTSB. Showing such a man coping with this surreal attention and hero worship offers its own kind of dramatic tension, or at least it might have been if Sully didn’t get sidetracked with government inquiries in the meantime.

A whole movie certainly could have been made of Sully dealing with the aftermath, the press and his struggle to return to normal life, while making the investigation into the crash a more minor element. The fact that Eastwood went the other way does help fuel suspicions that he got sidetracked with an axe to grind somewhere, instead of keeping the focus squarely on Sully the man and his inner turmoil. And with other odd touches like seeing a poster for Eastwood's own Gran Torino at 2009 Times Square, seeing Michael Rapaport pop by as a bartender, and the clear struggle to make this short movie as long as it is, Eastwood gets in his and Sully's own way more than he should.

Given what he gets out of Hanks anyway, it seems like a particularly half-wasted opportunity.

Hanks has played as many all-American heroes as Eastwood over the decades, if not more of them, and has certainly played more of them that never had superpowers with a gun. The last few years have had him lean on such characters more than ever, thanks to Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies. But while it may be tempting to say Hanks is coasting more than ever on his average man hero persona, Sully offers a more restrained and more internal side of it than ever before.

Following in Eastwood’s minimalist lead, Hanks speaks volumes with his face as much as his soft-spoken words, showing the trauma and tension within the supposedly unflappable Sully. While the grey wig and mustache alone may not make everyone forget that it is Hanks underneath, he sinks himself into character in a way almost on par with his first Oscar winning turn in Philadelphia. Time will tell whether he is actually deemed too restrained to get back in the Oscar race for the first time in an uncommonly long 16 years, especially after Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies just missed doing the trick.

Between Hanks in front of the camera and Eastwood behind it, everyone else is just mere backup. Aaron Eckhart mainly serves as Sully’s major cheerleader and source for one-liners as his co-pilot, but he at least gets scenes where he isn’t just talking on a phone, unlike Laura Linney as Sully’s wife. Strangely enough, the real life Lorraine Sullenberger actually has more screen time without a telephone, once she and the real Sully are seen with the 1549 passengers during the end credits. Yet it is still a horse race between Linney and head NTSB interrogator Mike O’Malley on who has the more thankless job.

When Sully buckles down on more worthwhile and fleshed out elements, it captures what really made this a miracle on and off the Hudson, why it is important to remember now, and why Eastwood and Hanks can still keep getting away with telling these kinds of all-American hero stories. But to get through the valuable parts that do work, one still has to sit through the bureaucratic slow patches and perhaps questionable agendas that don't.

For that, Sully has to settle for an official score of 6. Yet it is really on the level of a 6.5, albeit not quite high enough for a 7.