SULLY ( 7 out of 10) Directed by Clint Eastwood; Written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book by Chesley Sullenberger; Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O’Malley, Ann Cusack, Molly Hagan, Jane Gabbert; Rated PG-13 for “some peril and brief strong language”; Running time 95 minutes; In wide release September 9, 2016.
On a freezing January morning in 2009, Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger lost both engines immediately after takeoff on his flight from LaGuardia to Charlotte and saved the lives of every passenger and crewmember by landing his plane on the Hudson River. It was a compelling story for a country reeling from the financial crisis and in need of hope.
This is their story.
The film opens with an alternate history, where Captain Sullenberger tried to make it back to LaGuardia and ends up crashing in midtown Manhattan. This is the stuff of his literal nightmares, and these fantasies and what-if scenarios are a constant reminder of just how easily things might have turned out differently. From this moment, the movie grabs you and never lets go.
While it’s Clint Eastwood’s name on the marquee as the director, the person whose fingerprints are all over this are Tom Hanks’s. His sort of aw-shucks everyman-ism is on full display here as they present “Sully” as a regular human being making human decisions but making them to the best of his ability. Indeed, this is a tribute to the simple heroism of normal people doing their very best under extraordinary circumstances.
Hanks also portrays Sully with so much humanity: he is as riddled with self-doubt and succumbed to second guessing and fear as anyone would be faced with the situation. Indeed, one of the things so amazing about Sullenberger in real life was how humble and unassuming he was. Hanks nails this and puts in one of his most charismatic performances in years.
Aided in all of this is his literal co-pilot for the movie, Aaron Eckhart, who plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Eckhart gets all the laugh lines, but is responsible for bringing that lightness to what otherwise might be a bleak and overbearing film. Hanks is the calm, cerebral father figure; Eckhart is the wiseacre sidekick.
Eastwood’s direction, while good, is incredibly uneven. Individual sequences are gripping and intense. But the film is assembled a bit more haphazardly than it should be. The decision to tell the story in a non-linear fashion is a good one. It allows us to revisit the events of the their fateful flight over and over from different points of view, which builds layers of intensity.
It was also a wise decision to make the main narrative follow the weeks and months after the incident as Sully faces intense scrutiny from the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB). It gives the film a smarmy antagonist who seems dedicated to pull down our hero, allowing us as the audience to cheer for him even more as he’s vindicated over and over.
But these strengths also become weaknesses as the storytelling and bias get away from Eastwood a little bit. Sometimes the transition from scene to scene is too jarring. It’s like eating a 9 course meal where courses are brought out in the strangest order.
I fear the Clint Eastwood who yelled at an empty chair and brought us the sometimes incomprehensible American Sniper directed the transitions between the major pieces of the film. It also allows Eastwood to yell at that empty chair again and blame the big, nasty federal government for tarnishing the bona fides of our hero! Mean, evil gubmint apparatchiks! Considering a more leftist director might have done the same thing, but with the “evil” insurance company as the villain, we can forgive (and laugh off) his injection of this bias here as. . . well, the guy who spent 10 minutes yelling at an empty chair four years ago.
However, while the senile old coot who brought us Bradley Cooper playing with a fake baby delivered the bad parts of the movie, the Hollywood powerhouse Clint Eastwood who brought us Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River delivered most of this movie to us. And that is, on balance, a very good thing.
The best part of the experience of Sully, however, is the quiet, unassuming message. These people eschewed the term heroes. These were just normal people put in extraordinary circumstances who all decided to give their very best. It’s ultimately the best part of the film, and it’s finely delivered to us by its cast, if not its editor and director.
7 out of 10