A film review by Craig J. Koban September 15, 2016

SULLY jjj

2016, R, 96 mins.

 

Tom Hanks as Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger  /  Laura Linney as Lorraine Sullenberger  /  Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles  /  Anna Gunn as Elizabeth Davis  /  Mike O'Malley as Charles Porter

Directed by Clint Eastwood  /  Written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book by Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow

At a very ripe age of 86, the fact that director Clint Eastwood is still helming major studio efforts at a time in life when most other industry players have long called it a career is pretty staggering.  

Having said that, it has also become abundantly clear that the masterful Eastwoodian films of old like UNFORGIVEN, MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY and CHANGELING are long behind him, which is made all the more apparent over the last decade of forgettable and somewhat misguided efforts from him.  SULLY, however, is a decent albeit kind of problematic return to form for Eastwood and demonstrates that he still has a few good films up his more than capable sleeves to offer moviegoers.  

SULLY is a fact based account of the “Miracle on the Hudson” of 2009, during which time U.S. Airways Flight 1549 made a daring and extremely risky “forced water landing” on the Hudson River after both engines were taken out by a flock of Canadian geese, which miraculously saved the lives of all 155 souls on board the plane.  The pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was lionized – and rightfully so – as a bona fide America hero, and he quietly became the subject of an adoring media circus.  Not only was he the very last person to leave the sinking aircraft, but he also walked through the cabin not once, but twice before exiting it to ensure that everyone was accounted for and safe.  Watching Sullenberger's remarkable modesty on the interview circuit revealed him to be a man of old fashioned gumption and duty bound honor.  In many ways, this man’s a true diamond in the rough. 

 

 

It should be noted, though, that SULLY is not a standard biopic of the man’s life (even though some rather awkwardly shoehorned in flashbacks are presented in the film’s narrative about his past life that introduced him to aviation).  Eastwood is more interested in the shaping the story of what happened in the cockpit during those hellishly stressful 208 seconds for Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles.  Perhaps to the film’s detriment, SULLY employs a rather confusing structure overall for chronicling the events of January of 2009, which employs a non-linear storyline that feels a bit too cumbersome and haphazardly constructed.  It never becomes burdensomely confusing, but it somehow makes an already frustratingly short film (barely over 90 minutes) lacking in swift forward momentum at times.  Fortunately, SULLY overcomes its weird plot mechanics and a definitive lack of a beginning, middle, and end by having a reliably stalwart performance by Tom Hanks in the titular role, not to mention that Eastwood’s recreation of the event in question is eerily authentic.  

SULLY captures the relationship between Sullenberger and Skiles (a dependably strong Aaron Eckhart) with remarkable veracity; there’s rarely a moment in the film when they don't feel wholeheartedly credible as pilots and the film does a stellar job of capturing the cadence of their back-and-forth banter in the cockpit.  The film showcases the relative mundane nature of their prep for takeoff on that fateful day in 2009, and by all accounts it was just another in a long lineup of routine flights for the pair.  Unfortunately, and as mentioned, disaster strikes very early after takeoff, which forced Sullenberger to make lighting quick judgment calls.  Air traffic controllers desperately tried to plot a return trip back to the airport – or to any other nearby airports with available runways – but Sullenberger realized that a plane without engine support won’t make it, and he based this decades of experience, some shrewd decision making, and his "gut."  Believing that landing in the nearby Hudson was his only viable option, Sullenberger braced his plane, crew, and passengers for the worse.  Of course, history proved this to be the right course of action, and his peers, colleagues, and the larger media as a whole immediately embraced Sullenbeger with accolades and recognition.  Unfortunately, members of the National Transportation Safety Board aren’t totally convinced that Sullenberger couldn’t have returned the plane safely to an airport.  This leads to multiple investigations into the events that transpired, which begins to slowly weigh down on Sullenberger’s conscience. 

One issue with SULLY is that Eastwood seems to be really, really straining and reaching for some form of villain to oppose the righteousness of Sullenberger’s gallant actions, and he somewhat lazily finds it in the NTSB officials, none of whom are given much depth or personality in the story.  They're essentially conceived as cardboard cutout bureaucratic antagonists here that vehemently oppose Sullenberger’s choices throughout.  Now, a much more refined approach would have been to portray them as empathetically and responsible people that, much like Sullenberger, were just doing their jobs.  I question whether or not the real reps from the NTSB came off as standoffishly aloof with Sullenberger during their queries, and also whether or not they bombarded him with flight simulator findings and computer analysis of the landing.  Eastwood lacks a subtle approach here to this facet of Sullenberger’s story, which sort of brings the film down at points. 

Yet, SULLY is intrinsically compelling every time Hanks is on screen as his conflicted captain, and much like, say, Jimmy Stewart before him, Hanks is an endlessly amiable silver screen performer that can tap into the instant everyman appeal of his characters, Sullenberger being no exception.  It’s a very soft spoken and undercranked performance, which echoes the real Sullenberger’s admirable humility.  That, and Hanks also captures the nightmarish post-landing anxiety that, no doubt, also plagued the man.  Even though Sullenberger presented here is someone that resolutely believes that he did the right thing, he’s nevertheless plagued with nagging questions about them that slowly wear him down.  If anything, Hanks imbues Sullenberger with a no-nonsense, cool-headed demeanor that serves the film well and elevates it above its flaws.  He’s paired very well with Eckhart, a terribly underrated actor that always managers to infuse himself in supporting roles with a genuinely likeable and humanistic swagger that serves as Sullenberger’s humorous voice of reason at times. 

Despite some of his problematic handling of the material here, Eastward sometimes never gets the due credit he deserves for being a technically proficient director when it comes to marrying live action with visual effects.  Flight 1549’s descent into the Hudson – shown multiple times in the film from varying viewpoints – definitely packs an exhilarating wow factor while simultaneously communicating to audiences the nerve jangling danger that everyone on board was facing that day.  Alongside the alarmingly realistic opening to HEREAFTER (featuring an immensely powerful tsunami wave) or the gritty verisimilitude of his staging of the Battle of Iwo Jima in FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, Eastwood’s painstaking presentation of the Miracle on the Hudson is an undeniable showstopper that demonstrates his commanding confidence. 

I just wished that his confidence and discipline here translated to other aspects of story.  For a film that’s so routinely well acted and consummately mounted, SULLY is, again, awash in narrative confusion at times.  Perhaps it's simply too short and doesn’t flesh out many other particulars of Sullenberger’s life (Laura Linney appears, for example, as his beleaguered wife in what amounts to an obligatory beleaguered wife role and not much else).  That, and beyond his obvious courage when faced with impossible odds, Sullenberger is not altogether that fascinating of a character, which regrettably leads to Eastwood and company pining for ways to manufacture dramatic conflict in the film.  You rarely get a sense that Sullenberger’s psyche is as fully penetrated as Eastwood thinks it is in the film.  Still, SULLY mostly works as a noble-minded celebration of working class heroism, and this is Hanks' film through and through.  Much like AMERICAN SNIPER, though, Eastwood isn’t compelled with dealing with some of the drearier aspects of his subject's life, like how Sullenberger testified in February of 2009 before the House of Representatives about how his salary was slashed by 40 per cent and how his pension – like most in the industry – was all but eroded by cutbacks.  He pleaded a case that his industry was showing less and less interest in keeping people with decades of experience and that the pay scale had become so low that it forced veteran pilots to abandon their profession.   

That aspect of Sullenberger’s life would have provided an emotional gut-punching epilogue to SULLY, but it instead goes the safer route, which is not altogether satisfying, but not altogether bad either.  On one large positive, the film wisely supports the notion that an experienced man’s “gut” instincts on the job are more reliable than anything else...and that should really count for something. 

 

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