By Chaz Lipp
Audiences have responded enthusiastically to Sully, director Clint Eastwood’s account of airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson,” making it a breakout post-summer hit. The real-life story of Sullenberger’s successful water landing of US Airways Flight 1549, during which all 155 souls on board survived (with only a few sustaining relatively minor injury) after a devastating bird strike, is easily among the greatest chapters in aviation history. But how does one dramatize such a familiar story in order to make it a compelling feature film?
One successful decision Eastwood makes is to take the 208-second flight and repeat it several times in a variety of ways. We see the fabled flight in glimpses, in nightmares, in flight simulator recreations, and in (basically) real time. Eastwood does what all previous news footage could not. He puts us right in the cockpit with Captain “Sully” (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). He make us feel the horror of the passengers, as well as the steely calm of the men piloting the aircraft. We see the aftermath, with dozens of individuals working to ferry the 155 passengers and crew members to safety. This doesn’t play out in any hysterical, needlessly over-the-top way—Eastwood shows us the first responders calmly, determinedly going about their jobs.
Partially successful is the courtroom drama aspect of the National Transportation Safety Board’s post-accident investigation. The board members are a rather bland bunch (only Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn has any real “star” recognition) and they mostly sit around casting aspersions toward Sully and Skiles. Of course there was an in-depth investigation, but some of this staging feels overheated and just plain silly.
More interesting is Sully’s personal life, but even here Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (adapting Sullenberger’s own account, Highest Duty) don’t dig deep enough. Surely there must be something else in Sully’s life more compelling than the seemingly uneventful landing of a somewhat compromised fighter jet during training exercises in Sully’s Air Force days. A bit of Sully’s early life as a crop duster doesn’t do anything more than mark time.
Least successful are the “disaster flick” tropes Eastwood and company trudge out in an ill-advised attempt to give voice to some of the passengers. There’s an aging dad and his adult sons who rush to board Flight 1549 after the gates have closed (did any airport actually allow that in ’09?), en route to a golfing event. There’s an elderly passenger making a last-minute purchase at the souvenir shop. These minor roles are distractions—neither well written or well acted. The inclusion of such superfluous material only points out how much padding was needed to get Sully across the 90-minute mark.
To sum up: the ending’s a foregone conclusion, Tom Hanks isn’t challenged here (despite delivering a sturdy stalwart-hero-mode performance), and Laura Linney as Sully’s wife Lorraine joins the rest of the supporting cast as another victim of stilted dialogue (as portrayed, it feels as if Lorraine and Sully are barely acquainted). Somehow, in its old-fashioned, workmanlike way, Sully manages to justify its existence primarily on the basis of the incredibly true story.
Sully Images: Warner Bros. Pictures