In 2009 airline pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed a passenger jet on the Hudson River, saving the lives of everyone on board. It was a truly amazing feat, and “Sully” became an overnight hero. The predictable media wave followed—interviews, book deal, and, now, a feature film directed by Clint Eastwood. Without taking anything away from what Captain Sullenberger accomplished, the movie, Sully, sucks. Somehow Eastwood took one of the most heartwarming heroism tales of the last decade and turned into boring, borderline unwatchable garbage. Maybe Eastwood should stop directing films. I don’t think his heart is in it anymore.
Tom Hanks stars as Sully, and he gives a very fine performance, playing the pilot as a humble man struggling with the onset of PTSD symptoms even as he deals with the media, the attention of perfect strangers, and an oddly combative plot about the NTSB trying to pin the disaster on Sully—we’re going to come back to this. Hanks is really on the ball here, as sympathetic and Everyman as he’s ever been, and believably embodies a man who put in his ten thousand hours and never sought the spotlight for himself. Laura Linney co-stars as Sully’s wife, Lorrie, and she spends all her time on the phone in the kitchen, and never shares one scene with Hanks, which is a waste.
The script, from Todd Komarnicki (Perfect Stranger), is where all the problems with Sully start, and Eastwood’s direction, which is lazy and uninspired in the extreme, does not help. The movie contains a recreation of the famous water landing, but most of the screen time happens in hotel rooms and conference rooms as Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, letting his mustache do most his acting), are interviewed by the NTSB. This is an enormous problem as it renders a movie about a famous plane crash so visually uninteresting it boggles the mind. How is a movie about a PLANE CRASH this boring?
Because the storytelling is HORRIBLE. Komarnicki and Eastwood chose the most boring approach possible, and then they compound their mistake by creating a plot in which the sneering nerds at the NTSB try to pin the blame for the crash on Sully. There are a lot of moments in which characters tell Sully how badly New York “needed” this miracle, yet Eastwood and Komarnicki don’t spend any time on the human element of the story. They’re way more interested in painting the government as a bunch of rule-following uber-nerds out to destroy a Great Man.
Leaving aside the very real damage such an approach can do to public trust in the very institution founded to keep up safe, it’s just lazy writing. Sully makes the mistake so many disaster/survival movies do and assumes we need a traditional plot structure to follow the story. But we don’t. And in the case of Sully in particular, the “Miracle on the Hudson” was well documented by the media, so we’re stuck watching recreations of interviews and news bulletins that are all over Youtube instead of experiencing or feeling anything for the characters portrayed in the movie.
At the end of the movie there is a postscript that states the rescue of the airline passengers took twenty-four minutes, and a throwaway news recreation emphasizes that, given the frigid temperatures, time is of the essence for the rescue. THAT IS YOUR MOVIE. Instead of inventing this asinine, boring NTSB-are-the-real-villains plot—I swear to god it feels like the characters should turn as one to the camera and chant “steel beams” by the end—just focus on the rescue. The best part of Sully is the crash recreation anyway, so just do that. Show us the daily routine of Sully, the ferry boat operators, the NYPD scuba divers, and air traffic control. Then show us the water landing from each of their perspectives. The movie kind of does this, but doesn’t commit to the idea that all Sully needs to be is a depiction of how, in a matter of minutes, people came together to prevent a tragedy.
Instead of looking for the helpers, Sully chooses to focus on a bogus black-hat effort to discredit Captain Sullenberger. It’s a highly suspect choice, borderline reckless given the real-world implications to public trust, and it results in a desperately boring movie. And as directed by Eastwood, nothing special is happening except the number of establishing shots of hallways. If it weren’t for Tom Hanks, Sully would be utterly unwatchable.
Attached - Tom Hanks at 26th Annual Simply Shakespeare benefit earlier this week in LA.