There’s no question that “Sully” will take you on a visceral, emotional ride. Much of the first 45 minutes of the film offers visions of what could have happened if Sully had turned the plane back to LaGuardia instead of landing in the Hudson. Scene after scene of planes hitting buildings in New York have not gotten easier to watch in the last 15 years. It would be a cheap emotional ploy if there wasn’t a thread of truth behind it, and the rest of the movie is spent unraveling that thread. Some of it works, but much of it doesn’t, because this is a script written to win awards rather than written to be a good movie.
Tom Hanks stars in this thrilling portrait of heroic airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, re-enacting his incredible successful emergency landing of an Airbus A320 full of passengers on the Hudson River. (Synopsis by Warner Bros.)
In June 2009, Vanity Fair writer William Langewiesche published “Anatomy of a Miracle,” which shed light on the other factors beyond Capt. Sullenberger that saved the lives of the passengers and crew on board US Airways 1549. It is an engrossing read simply because it focuses on the details that weren’t largely covered amid the fawning over Sully’s piloting skills. To the credit of both the Sully character and the actual Capt. Sullenberger, neither ever designs to capitalize on their fame. Both are a person who did the thing that needed to be done, and their humility is commendable. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for good movie writing. The problem is that characters need to change or learn, and this is a movie written around the character of Sully. He is the rock in the center of a storm of controversy. By following his journey, the audience is tethered to an immovable object that never grows—and therefore, never really interests us.
Tom Hanks does what he can with the character. As with any truly good actor, you’ll often forget you are watching Hanks and instead think of him as Sully. Yet the best acting can’t take away from the insufferable heavy-handedness of hero worship that the film lays on Sully. No matter how dire the circumstances, Hanks-Sully is a quiet, determined force of “rightness” who is always proven correct. The climactic scenes fall flat when the audience is no more concerned with the outcomes than the soft-spoken protagonist who doesn’t emote more than a general musing about his knowledge.
The most engrossing part of the film is the actual accident itself; gorgeously shot and played out slowly in a combination of flashbacks to the eventual full event. What could have been gratuitously played to fuel accident-porn ticket sales is instead gently handled with a focus on the humanity inside the plane and rushing to help. For all the minutes of celluloid that do not invoke an emotional response from the audience, the actual accident is an open wound of memories and tight shots of people’s lives. It is nearly enough to forgive Eastwood for ineffectively handling the climax and ending of the film.
The last 20 minutes of the film may be the most overdone attempt at writing for awards season. They almost feel as if they belong in another movie, probably one made for TV, and completely throw the emotional rollercoaster of the film off course. The audience knows how this is all going to turn out, and Eastwood is a better director than his handling of this final scene. Not only is it poorly written, it goes against the entire premise of Sully’s character in the film. Not to give away too much, but switching from a character who refuses the mantle of “hero” to blatantly and specifically addressing him as such for no logical reason does not work at all. He can still be the hero, but he has to maintain his character’s fundamental truths. Those can’t be tossed aside because you need an Oscar speech.
“See It/ Rent It/ Skip It”: See it. There are flaws, but this is a better product than Eastwood has given us in several years. Bring your tissues.
THREE STARS out of four.
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.
Runtime: 1 hr. 36 min.