The most surprising thing about Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” is that it may be the only film I’ve seen featuring a massive commercial plane crash that can’t be labeled a “disaster flick.” To be sure, we do see the plane crash in three different sequences but those expecting an intense, adrenaline fueled disaster spectacle will be disappointed. Instead of using dramatic music and quick cuts, the crash sequences have a calm and leisurely quality to them--mimicking the cool demeanor of the plane’s captain, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks).
Furthermore, the movie (based on the true story of Sullenberger landing a jet on the Hudson river after both engines blew out and miraculously saving all 155 passengers/crew members on board) is an intimate human drama that focuses more on the aftermath of the flight; Sullenberger’s fight with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over whether the water landing was the right decision, as well as his PTSD and coming to terms with being viewed as a hero.
It’s a skillfully made film in a lot of respects but it also left me feeling slightly underwhelmed. I walked out of the theater impressed but also asking myself, “is that it?”
“Sully” is essentially a Man vs. Technology tale, using a Courtroom Drama-style structure. The NTSB is conducting an investigation into the crash and according to their engineer reports and computer simulations Sully could have successfully flown the plane back to two airports. However, Sully isn’t buying it. He was there and he knew that he couldn’t make it back. Computer simulations don’t take into account human/real world factors like reaction time. He’s got to prove the NTSB and those computer simulations wrong. Goddamn computers!
The film runs a brisk 96 minutes and I appreciate the fact that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (based on the book by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) choose to emphasize a single, significant chapter in the pilot’s life as opposed to trying to tell a bigger, mythologizing biographical tale. There are a few flash backs (one showing Sullenberger as a young Crop duster and another as an Air Force pilot) that could have been axed but otherwise the picture remains tight and focused on Sullenberger’s current dilemma and actions.
Hanks is in top form. At this point he’s become so iconic that he doesn’t really have to do much to win you over. He has such a comforting, likable onscreen presence. Here, he manages to be both restrained and natural; his performance free of any big” over-the-top actor-y moments. The kind that scream: “I want an Oscar!” Aaron Eckhart as Sullenberger’s First Officer/friend Jeff Skiles is also quite good and together they have a strong repartee. There’s a history between them, a sense of trust and camaraderie that’s readily apparent every time they’re onscreen together. We don’t need additional background scenes or flashbacks to develop their bond.
However, as good as “Sully” is there’s a level of predictability and routineness pulsing through much of it that’s impossible to fully shake. Being unfamiliar with many of the details of the crash and being even less familiar with the aftermath, it was still easy for me to predict where it was all going; not just in regards to the overall narrative arc but scene by scene. There’s not much in the way of suspense or tension, even during the plane crash sequences. Additionally, the conclusion is inevitable and leaves little for the audience to chew on. “Sully” simply tells its story and then leaves the room.
The picture becomes so constrained by the courtroom drama/procedural angle of the story that it neglects other aspects such as Sullenberger’s intense emotional and psychological problems. It would have been interesting had Eastwood explored the idea of memory and uncertainty more. At one point, doubt arises over whether or not both engines actually blew out, which would call Sully’s memory and version of events into question. But it’s quickly dropped and the film moves on. Sullenberger is so sure of himself and his actions but our memories aren’t always reliable. Sometimes we distort events to make them fit a narrative we’re trying to craft in our heads. Had the film included more moments of self-doubt and uncertainty, more scenes of Sully grappling with his own psyche, it would have added a layer of much needed suspense to the proceedings and additional character dimension. The movie treats Sully with so much respect (while subsequently demonizing the NTSB) that it leaves little doubt in the viewers mind as to whether he’s telling the truth or not. There’s never a moment where I thought: “are things not going to turn out well for him?”
I have other minor issues, namely that the ultra talented and underrated Laura Linney (as Sullenberger’s wife) is reduced to, “concerned-spouse-on-phone.” Linney does what she can but there just isn’t much for her to do. Her character is one-dimensional.
“Sully” could have been much worse but I think it could have been much better. It’s competently made and well acted but it ultimately plays things safe. With all this considered, it’s a solid film that you can watch in the comfort of your own home a few months from now and enjoy just fine.