Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn
(Warner Brothers, Village Roadshow Pictures)
US theatrical: 9 Sep 2016
Clint Eastwood’s latest effort, Sully, is a classic example of using the wrong genre to tell the right story. Riddled with structural flaws and baffling directorial choices, this re-telling of an Airbus A320’s crash landing on the Hudson River plods aimlessly through much of its running time. The unbridled intensity of the splash-down is bookended by plots and characters that distract from the deeds of our courageous hero. Ultimately, Sully fails to capture the spirit and resonance that captured America’s imagination.
When Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) successfully landed his airplane in the Hudson River in the winter of 2009, it was only a matter of time before the remarkable story landed in theaters. It’s the kind of compelling narrative that cinema was created for; two grizzled pilots making split second decisions, 155 frantic passengers bracing for impact, and a harrowing descent toward certain doom. The script practically writes itself!
So why is this dramatization so bereft of drama?
Of course, the entire film exists in order to showcase the unbearably suspenseful moments when Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), must negotiate a safe water landing for their disabled aircraft. US Airways Flight 1549 lost control of both engines shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport when it flew into a flock of Canada Geese. With little altitude control and even less time, Sully abandons all hope of reaching an airport in favor of landing on the frigid January waters of the Hudson.
Eastwood does a respectable job avoiding melodrama during these intense scenes. Sully is a cool customer, quickly diagnosing the situation and prescribing an impromptu landing for his ailing airbus. Hanks was born for this kind of role. He infuses a quiet humanity into the situation without ever resorting to hysterics. You so thoroughly relate to Hanks that you’re perfectly willing to be his co-pilot. Though, given his experiences in Sully and Cast Away, you might want to re-schedule your flight if you find Hanks sitting in the seat next to you.
Sadly, Sully struggles with everything beyond the cockpit. Working from the biography co-authored by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, screenwriter Todd Komarnicki must find a worthwhile story to complement his extraordinary plane landing. A more cynical viewer might say that the positive outcome for Flight 1549 undercuts the drama, but it’s more likely that the truncated time scale of Sully’s heroics (a matter of minutes) is the true culprit.
Put bluntly, Komarnicki’s script is a mess. The bulk of the film is comprised of Sully’s stare-down with a bizarrely confrontational inquiry from the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). This “Operation and human performance evaluation” is completely unconvincing, as it’s hard to imagine even the most soulless bureaucrat publically criticizing a guy who just saved the lives of 155 passengers.
Some effort is made to characterize Sullenberger as a tormented soul, plagued by self-doubt over his split-second decisions. “I’m going to be judged by 208 seconds,” the 40 year veteran pilot laments. Those doubts are only fanned by his less-than-supportive wife (Laura Linney), who must have been tethered to her phone and forbidden to leave the house in a deleted scene. She worries that the NTSB inquiry will cost Sully his job and pension. It’s unbearably boring to watch Hanks repeatedly phone home in what becomes the cinematic equivalent of white noise.
Eastwood and Komarnicki’s ultimate cry for help, however, is re-enacting the same water landing twice. After capably staging the crash in its entirety, Eastwood films the exact same sequence and re-plays it less than 15 minutes later! We learn nothing new about Sully’s mindset or the circumstances of the crash. There are no revelations. This is simply the last resort of a filmmaker desperate to enhance the dramatic content of his film.
It goes without saying that Sullenberger’s story is worth telling. He’s a genuine hero who delivered 155 souls safely back to earth under a grueling circumstance. “It’s been a while since New York had news this good,” one character tells Sully. It’s a moment that transcends one man and his accomplishments. Eastwood’s inability to capture that gravitas is a function of both his flawed directorial choices and the genre he employs for the telling.
The story of Airbus A320 is the stuff of documentaries. Sully’s story, though noteworthy on its own, is only one small piece of a much larger picture. The mindset of the passengers, still cluttered by the events of September 11th, 2001, might be the biggest omission of Eastwood’s treatment. We get only the smallest (and most irritating) glimpse into the passenger experience; mostly to remind us that Sully and his co-pilot aren’t the only people onboard the plane.
What of the countless emergency workers on the land, sea, and air? Surely, their accounts of the rescue would lend extra perspective to Sully’s miraculous accomplishment. It would also be interesting to speculate how the rescue operation was impacted by the events of 9/11. First responders and rescue personnel were literally on the Hudson in minutes, due in large part, no doubt, to the extensive training they received after 9/11. For the survivors stranded in the icy waters, those precious minutes were the difference between life and life-threatening hypothermia.
Eastwood’s passion for this project is evident, but Sully is simply not suited for the regular film format. Like his previous lackluster effort, Jersey Boys, Eastwood fails to capture the spirit that undoubtedly inspired his interest in the project. It’s ironic that by neglecting to tell the entire story from different viewpoints, Sully actually downplays the heroism that saved so many lives.