Clint Eastwood’s Sully begins with a plane crash. It’s not the one that landed in the Hudson River, saving 155 people in total. This is one that shows the film’s titular character, portrayed by Tom Hanks, trying to save everyone onboard from imminent death. And yet, he can’t. The plane he’s commanding crashes into a building in a scene that hauntingly echoes the tragedy of September 11, 2001.
But those who know the story of what would later be called the “Miracle on the Hudson,” which should be pretty much everyone who plans on seeing Eastwood’s cinematic take on it, know that this didn’t happen. So it comes as no shock when Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger awakens panicked and breathing heavily from what turns out to be a nightmare.
It’s in this opening moment that Eastwood hooks the viewer, and prepares them for what is promising to be an intense exploration of a man in a challenging career who will become a hero to many. The actions he took were risky, but they had a positive outcome. Yet he still can’t shake the fear of what if it didn’t work out in the end. Seeing Hanks spring from the bed wide-eyed and startled reminds us how great of an actor he is.
In a sense, the approach Eastwood takes with Sully is familiar to what he did with Flags of Our Fathers and American Sniper. Those two war films largely focused on the after-effects of war and how its subjects dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder and coming home from fighting a horrific battle. Sully is similar in showing how a man who made a last-minute, life-or-death decision is now dealing with everything being thrown at him afterward – both the good and the bad.
Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki – adapting his screenplay from Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty – make the film adaptation more focused on the aftermath, and the crash itself is shown in flashback scenes. While the majority of the world saw him as a hero, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) questioned his decision-making and launched a full-fledged investigation into the matter. And outside of the court room and away from the cameras, Sullenberger is dealing with the trauma that he has endured from this incident.
On one hand, Sully is a finely crafted film. The lighting and camera work is expertly polished by Eastwood and his behind-the-scenes crew – including Tom Stern, who has been his cinematographer for every film since 2002’s Blood Work. But like American Sniper and Flags of Our Fathers, Sully is a film that has potential for greatness and yet doesn’t quite achieve that. You have a talented director and crew working behind the camera; a talented cast in front of the camera; and material that would make for an intriguing film. But the end result is something that can’t exactly break from the clutches of being your typical, Oscar-bait biopic.
It almost feels too much like what one would expect from Eastwood. On a technical level, it’s superb, but it also seems like it’s prepping itself in the hopes that the Academy will give it all sorts of awards. In terms of the script, it does need some work.
It’s intriguing to watch the events unfold in the courtroom, mostly because this information is not as well known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” itself. We see that while Sullenberger is being propped up as a hero by the news outlets, there’s still that itch in the back of the minds of some on whether or not he did the right thing. But these moments are interspersed between flashbacks to the Hudson River crash landing and the immediate aftermath, which includes phone calls to his wife (Laura Linney) to calm him down; being greeted with open arms and cheek kisses by complete strangers; and an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman.
Eastwood is able to make the crash landing on the Hudson a tense, heart-pounding moment in Sully, but there comes a point where the viewer realizes it’s a flashback and is then taken back to Sullenberger on the phone, telling his wife he has to leave. It’s almost too abrupt of an edit, considering that Eastwood spends a lot of time building up to the scene by showing some of the passengers and what they were doing before boarding the plane. It’s a good tactic to give these people some depth, but the execution is a bit jumbled.
What keeps Sully afloat is its cast. Hanks doesn’t overstate his performance as Sullenberger. His calm portrayal is effective, even when Sullenberger has to deal with a lot. There isn’t a moment where he reaches too far to show how heroic his deed was, and that’s what makes it work the most. I do wish the film ran longer than 96 minutes (yes, that’s the actual runtime). That way we could have had more exploration of his backstory and some more in-depth material about his bout with PTSD and work-related nightmares. But Hanks is top-notch no matter what flaws there are.
Even some of the supporting players are at the top of their game here. Aaron Eckhart gives one of the best performances of his career as Sullenberger’s wise-cracking co-pilot, Jeff Skilles. He’s not over-the-top and zany like a Leslie Nielsen type, but some of his one-liners are delivered elegantly and don’t feel like a forced attempt at inserting some humor into the story. The incredibly underrated Mike O’Malley is also excellent as the judge in the case. He is one of the reasons why the court room scenes are brilliant.
The one supporting actor who is, unfortunately, not given a whole lot to do is Linney. She’s reduced to having to give her husband some calming talks over the phone, and that’s really about it. She’s fine with what she’s given, but it’s disappointing to see an actress of her caliber working with so little.
Issues aside, Sully is still packed with enough to serve as a satisfactory biopic. It may not be the intense, in-depth exploration we’re promised in the opening sequence, but with Hanks and the rest of the actors onboard, it’s serviceable.