Movie Review: Sully
By Matthew Huntley
September 20, 2016
Clint Eastwood's Sully begins by telling us about an extraordinary event that's already happened, then it proceeds to discuss whether or not the event should have happened the way it did, and finally, it ends by showing us the event, more or less twice. The film is good if you simply want to learn about the event and its immediate ramifications on those involved, but as a compelling drama, it's mostly flat. As the story develops, there's little in the way of surprises because we already know how the event turned and because the titular character, despite what he says and experiences, seems so stoic and unaffected that he comes across as, no offense, a bit of a bore. Whether or not the really Sully is like this doesn't matter; what does is the character at the center of Sully isn't the most fascinating subject for a feature film, at least not the way he's depicted here.
Most viewers will recall Sully's remarkable story, which happened on January 15, 2009. On that near-tragic day, US Airways Flight 1589 departed La Guardia Airport in New York City en route to Charlotte, NC. Minutes after takeoff, the plane collided with a flock of birds, causing the plane's two engines to breakdown, and the plane's captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), to make the split decision to land the aircraft in the Hudson River. Afterward, he's adamant about calling the landing an “emergency” and not a “crash," which makes sense given how surprisingly smoothly it went under the circumstances and the fact that all 155 passengers onboard walked away relatively unscathed. Thanks to Sully, co-captain Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the stewardesses, and the various crews from NYC ferry boats, the most suffering anyone endured was the bitter January cold.
Despite the safe landing, however, members of the National Transportation Safety Board believe Sully may have acted hastily and must consider the notion the engines weren't so damaged that the plane couldn't make it back to La Guardia or another nearby airport. But Sully and Skiles were there and know better. They believe no matter what any computer simulation shows, Flight 1589's situation can never be fully recreated because computers can't account for "the human factor," which subjects those involved to making quick decisions under enormous amounts of pressure in a limited amount of time. The pilots re-enacting the event have the luxury of being prepared for what's to come; Sully did not.
The movie follows Sully during the NTSB's investigation and attempts to generate drama by showing us how the event and its aftermath affect his psychosis. He recalls significant moments from his past and questions whether or not he made the right decision, which leads to insomnia, anxiety and a constant replaying of the landing over and over again in his head. All the while, he worries about his future as he gives periodic updates to his wife (Laura Linney).
Will Sully ever be allowed to fly again? Could he have been potentially responsible for the deaths of 155 people? These and other questions obviously yield enough substance that "Sully" should have been an involving drama, but somehow it comes off as slow and languid, and I think the main reason for that is we learn too early how the crisis turned out and that everyone survived, thus the tension the film would have otherwise generated gets diffused. It might have been in the film's better interest for Todd Komarnicki's screenplay to start things out with the emergency landing before going into the outcome of it. I know that sounds more traditional and straightforward, but I can envision this approach hooking us better because it would have ascribed to the "show, don't tell" principle of filmmaking, which tends to generally be more effective. By first "telling" us how the event transpired, the film cheats itself out of suspense and a sense of wonder.
Komarnicki's script also make it too obvious that Sully's decision was the right one and doesn't allow us time to infer this for ourselves. Sully tells the investigation team led by Charles Porter (Mike O'Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) that he got plenty of sleep the night before the flight, had only touched alcohol nine days prior, and that he's having just the usual, run-of-the-mill problems at home. Nothing stands out that would make us think Sully's judgement was poor or compromised.
Don't get me wrong; the fact that Sully did everything right yet his actions are still being questioned does make for an interesting story, and this was refreshing compared to, say, Flight, another film about a miraculous plane landing that relied on more sensational drama because the pilot was a troubled substance abuser. But unlike Flight, which found a way to make the main character captivating beyond his job and beyond the event in question, Sully loses momentum when focuses just on him. This makes me believe the real Sully is probably too genuine an individual to be portrayed as a movie character. Instead of seeing him in a wrought, narrative drama such as this, I would rather meet the real man or read his and Jeffrey Zaslow's book, Highest Duty, which inspired this film. Sometimes the real-life individuals upon which movies are based are more interesting than their on-screen counterparts.
To be sure, Sully is technically sound and well performed, and while it's hardly a bad film, it's also not a particularly stirring or entertaining one. For the most part, it merely reenacts (though quite well, mind you) the news and cell phone footage taken on that cold, January day and the ensuing interviews, late-night talk show appearances, etc. But this seems pointless unless it generates the type of drama and tension a feature film requires to hook us. Sully should have taken the unbelievable event that inspired it and ran with it, but instead it saunters, and we can't help but question its purpose.