Sully and all the images you see in this review are owned by Miramax and Warner Bros Pictures
Directed by Clint Eastwood
It has been a while since I’ve seen a Clint Eastwood movie. I’m pretty sure the last one I saw was Gran Torino which was pretty excellent and honestly a really good swansong for the ACTOR Clint Eastwood even if he’s continued to direct since then. Still, I definitely have some catching up to do here, and what better way to do so than with his new movie about his favorite subject? Heroic men doing awesome things and then people trying to punish them for it! Turn in your wings Sullenberger! YOU’RE OFF THE CASE!! Does this look into one of America’s modern folk heroes turn out to be another winner for the venerable director, or is Clint Eastwood just spinning his wheels at this point? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins a few days after the Miracle on the Hudson, where Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his copilot Jeff Sliles (Aaron Eckhart) managed to not only land their plane that had blown BOTH engines into the Hudson River, but managed to do so without losing a single passenger! All’s good then, right? Well… there inevitably has to be an investigation to find out what exactly happened and if Sully endangered more people doing what he did rather than trying to head back to a nearby runway. Fair enough I guess, but compound that with the whole world staring at him while ALSO dealing with the Post Traumatic Stress of the crash itself, then you’ve got a recipe for a man about to snap under the pressure which won’t exactly help his case that he’s a trained and objective professional who’s decision to land in the Hudson was the best one. Can Sully convince the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) that he shouldn’t be shit canned for being a hero? Will he handle this immense pressure with grace and inhuman composure? Is the insurance company not gonna cover this!?
I don’t know if there’s a GREAT movie to mine from this material, but there’s certainly a good one in desperate need of a better editor. It’s not so much that the movie doesn’t flow or is confusing to watch; rather it never manages to decide what it wants to be and so the focus is constantly shifting from scene to scene. The movie isn’t told chronologically as the framing device is Captain Sully in the days immediately after the crash with plentiful (and overlong) flashbacks periodically filling us in on what happened throughout the film. That’s not a bad way to tell the story, but what is the story ultimately about? Is it about dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how exacerbated that can get when thrust into the spotlight? Is it simply a dramatization of the crash itself? Are we supposed to think of Sully as a compelling and interesting character in his own right, or is he an audience avatar for us to experience his predicament through? Depending on where you are in the movie, the answer is yes to all of that, and it ends up being a mess because of it. The obvious comparison here is the movie Flight with Denzel Washington, and while I certainly had my issues with that movie, it at least knew what the hell it about.
Taken in pieces, there’s a lot of really great stuff here. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart are solid as kinda dopy average joes who know one thing REALLY well, and there’s strong work from the side characters as well, particularly Anna Gunn who plays one of the NTSB investigators; though I was less impressed with Laura Linney as Sully’s wife who actually phones in her performance here. Cinematography wise, it’s very well done throughout, getting some very scenic views of New York City in the winter, and the actual crash with the subsequent rescue response is impressively executed. The best part of this movie for me was the scenes immediately following the forced water landing in the Hudson as it’s not only inspirational to watch all the rescue workers moving swiftly into action, but it’s genuinely interesting to watch and goes to show that you don’t need to blow up a bajillon buildings or kill off countless civilians to bring excitement and spectacle to a movie. Then again, this DID cost sixty million which is no small amount, but I’m guess a third of that went to Tom Hanks.
Unfortunately, the way that the pieces are put together just doesn’t make much sense from a narrative standpoint. The movie goes for about twenty minutes with Sully completely shell-shocked and experiencing horrifying hallucinations of planes crashing into buildings and what could have happened if he didn’t make the call that he did, all the while having to deal with reporters all the time and his face plastered on every television set. Granted, he didn’t HAVE to watch the news channels every time he turned on the TV, but the point still stands. It’s even somewhat reminiscent of Nightcrawler in the way it portrays the media as hawkish and unyielding in the search for a scoop, yet turns the blame back on the audience as it shows that this kind of behavior is how we get so much of our news and coverage; even the feel good stuff. One moment, we see that Sully can’t even leave his hotel without being accosted by twenty flashing cameras, and the next we see TV footage of him being hailed as a hero.
That would be a really great direction for this movie to go, especially adding in the looming threat of the NTSB’s investigation as they look for a crack in the story being told by the captain. Unfortunately, the movie shifts gears about around the half hour point and all of a sudden we have a full dramatization of the day the plane crashed. This section on its own is really well executed, but what was the purpose here? Why show it in explicit detail and stop the movie dead for a good fifteen to twenty minutes to do this? Not only does it interrupt the flow of the film and take focus away from the predicament Sully finds himself in in the present, but it also undercuts the NTSB’s investigation and any doubts Sully might have about his memory of the event. Uh… you just showed us everything. We now know EXACTLY what happened, so we know that Sully made the right call even if he starts to doubt himself. We’re ripped out of his perspective because we now have knowledge he doesn’t have, namely an exact recollection of what happened rather than how memories USUALLY work which can be foggy and have subtle changes. When we get back to the framing device of Sully in the present, not only is it jarring because we’ve spent so long in the flashback, but we’re now in a completely different movie than the one we started with.
That’s the biggest example of the problem with this movie, but it manifests itself in smaller ways as well. Are we watching a character study of the man himself? Well you’d think so considering they throw in two contextless flashbacks to him in his early years (one about forty years ago and the other… maybe twenty?) but that’s completely dropped and not followed up on any further. So then what the hell was the point of those two random flashbacks!? At least the ones about the day of the crash are significant to the framing device which is all about the aftermath of that even, but having Sully remember the good old days and how he learned to fly isn’t relevant to what’s going on. It COULD have been if the movie decided that was the point (have this be a biopic about the man in the cockpit), but it’s just another thing that’s brought up and quickly dropped to move on to the next thing.
I feel that by the end of this, Clint Eastwood wasn’t all that interested in this being anything more than a fluff piece; lest Sully’s heroic sheen be tarnished ever so slightly. This is a far cry from something like Unforgiven where it was ultimately about moral gray areas and finding the nuance in the hero/villain dichotomy, and while that’s not really the kind of theme you can mine form a story like this, that commitment to being about something more than what it is on the surface is just missing here and what we get is a very matter of fact film. Sully’s a good guy, he saved a lot of people, New York rescue workers are awesome, and regulatory committees are not… I guess. For the parts that do work, it’s probably worth seeing, but I wouldn’t really recommend seeing this in the theater as the overall package isn’t very satisfying. Still, who wants to be this gets like seven Oscar nominations?
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