Aaron Eckhart Clint Eastwood

SULLY Review: Stupid, Redundant, and... Charming?

Monday, September 12, 2016 Rob Samuelson

In scene after scene of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Sully, airline captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) is met with hangers on who worship him for the death defying stunt he pulled on January 15, 2009. On that frigid day, he landed an airplane in New York City’s Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people on the flight after a flock of birds swooped into the jet’s dual engines -- the only time a modern pilot has successfully completed a water landing.

A cab driver, a makeup artist, a hotel manager, a bartender, and more “ordinary, everyday” people appear only to sing the hero pilot’s praises. They use nearly identical platitudes and gestures (overly emotional hugs, pecks on the cheek, etc.) to express their gratitude for what he did for his plane’s passengers and crew -- people they do not know. It is meant to be an examination of how to deal with the consequences of real-life heroism, but there are only so many times the movie can cut to Tom Hanks clamming up as a result of all the attention before it loses its effectiveness. Even with a performer of Hanks’s quality, it quickly grows tiresome to see him continually defer to his years of experience and training, repeating his “I’m not a hero, I’m just doing my job” schtick.

Because Sully never does anything once when it can do it three or more times. It is too thin. The events of January 15, 2009 -- and the days immediately following it -- are not enough to fill a feature film. Sully makes the point that they only had 208 seconds from the time his plane encountered a gaggle of destructive geese until they were in the nearly frozen water awaiting the arrival of New York’s first responders.

So Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (Perfect Stranger) fluff up the narrative. Usually this is done through repetition. For instance, the water landing is shown in its entirety twice, albeit from slightly different angles. But where they lose the thread is in their treatment of the investigation into Sully’s choice to land in the river rather than heading back to LaGuardia or to another close airport in New Jersey.

This investigation is the film’s dramatic throughline and never once does it make sense. It is set up as a way for the airline’s insurance company to cover its bases and maybe pin the loss of its airplane on the pilot who “carelessly” lost it in the Hudson like a dummy. But those insurance agents are never introduced. Instead Eastwood focuses on a team of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators, including Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn and Yes, Dear’s Mike O’Malley, who represent federal government officials with no skin in the insurance payout game. Yet they’re out to sabotage Sully’s career for a reason you can insert here if you can figure out out -- I cannot. It is the worst kind of screenwriterly trick, to dramatize an innocuous event like a debriefing session to pad a story.

Everything the NTSB investigators do is meant to paint them in a way that makes Sully (both the character and the man Eastwood aims to make into a myth) look good. Each scene in which he deals with the NTSB gives him the moral high ground or gives him ammo to throw some Law and Order-style courtroom “gotcha” questions back at them. They alternate between cunningly vindictive and woefully incompetent depending on what the movie needs them to be in the moment. They have no motivation for either characterization. They would not benefit from destroying him, nor do they put themselves in a strong position to win the case. They also leave out the lynchpin piece of evidence until they’re already in a quasi-trial situation, when it arrives in a deus ex envelope. They “prosecute” Sully in a hearing without having the evidence they need to truly damn his decisions -- that evidence is easily available if they would only wait. Such impatient negligence would cost any agent for a federal investigative body their job. That is because it is fiction, and poorly executed fiction at that, meant to give the movie a shape that looks something like “little guy versus The Man.” It is profoundly stupid in its execution of this.

At the very least, Eastwood appears to have learned his lesson from 2014’s American Sniper with Sully’s action sequences. The previous film shied away from tension every time it became overwhelming -- it would build, build, build, then cut away to another time in the protagonist’s life just as the going got tough. This time around, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern are unafraid to stay with the plane as it descends into the river, every passenger bracing for impact. Of course, with “The Miracle on the Hudson” being recent history, most Americans are aware of the story, which takes away from the gravity of the moment. Knowing the positive fate of the people on the flight removes some of the visceral thrill of wondering whether they will make it, but the mechanics of the sequence(s) are sound. For the audience member who has no recollection of the final days of the George W. Bush administration, the crash scenes could pack a wallop.

When the movie trusts the audience to understand its characters’ headspaces, its actors deliver. That’s why you hire Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart, after all. In the rare moments when Hanks does not have to spout lines explaining his character’s every thought, he quickly and subtly furrows his brow or blinks his eyes rapidly to show the stress (and PTSD) is getting to him. Eckhart, as Sully’s mustachioed co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, is a little more boisterous and proud of what the team was able to accomplish -- he’s an “all’s well that ends well” type who gets cranky at anyone whose job it is to make sure safety procedures were followed. If they movie had taken steps to place doubt about whether Sully and Skiles were correct to choose the water landing, then these performances would have registered with greater resonance. Instead, there is a parade of people and a visual record of the incident (at least for the audience) to reassure any viewer that there is no doubt they did everything right. It renders Sully an inert dramatic experience even if it is not without its moments of dumb sweetness.

Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Todd Komarnicki
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Rating: Two stars out of five

Available in theaters now

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