Sully is not a great film, but it’s an entertaining one that moves briskly.
On the afternoon of Jan. 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off for LaGuardia airport for what was expected to be a completely ordinary flight to Charlotte, North Carolina. Five crew members and 150 passengers were on board the Airbus A320-200, which was piloted by Captain Chesley Sullenberger (a.k.a. “Sully”) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles. A few minutes into the flight, however, the aircraft encountered a large formation of birds, with enough of them striking the aircraft to wipe out both its engines. Fortunately, Sullenberger and Skiles were able to land the plane on the Hudson River, with no loss of life and only a few serious injuries to passengers and crew. Sullenberg became an overnight hero, widely celebrated for bringing a potentially tragic situation to a happy conclusion.
The “Miracle on the Hudson,” as this episode came to be known, is a feel-good story that practically cries out for a heroic cinematic treatment. There’s just one problem: The ending of this episode is already well known, robbing the story of dramatic tension. To generate that tension, director Clint Eastwood’s Sully focuses not on the flight itself but on the conflict between Sully and members of the the National Transportation Safety Board who are charged with conducting an investigation of the flight.
Sully (Tom Hanks, in perhaps the most Tom Hanks role ever) is an experienced pilot and a steady family man who takes his responsibilities very seriously. In the aftermath of the flight, he’s subject to self-doubt and nightmares. In fact, the first “footage” you see of the flight is him imagining the plane crashing into a Manhattan skyscraper, a scenario recalling the real-life events of 9/11. Even worse, during the investigation Sully has to face a panel of experts who seem almost cartoonish in their determination to bring him down, doubting his version of events and constructing alternative narratives in which he could have landed the disabled plane conventionally either by returning to LaGuardia or by guiding it to Teterboro airport in New Jersey.
Mike O’Malley has the thankless job of playing the NTSB lead investigator, Charles Porter, who practically cackles with glee every time he challenges Sully’s account or brings up a new piece of “evidence” that might prove that the great hero was not so heroic after all. O’Malley’s character is a one-dimensional villain who seems motivated by personal spite rather than a search for the truth, one of several false notes that keep Sully at the level of effective entertainment rather than great filmmaking.
In their efforts to challenge Sully’s judgment, Porter and his colleagues rely on physical evidence (perhaps the damage to the plane’s engines was not as great as Sully perceived at the time?) and computer and human simulations of other actions he could have taken following the bird strikes. It all recalls that Theodore Roosevelt speech about the credit belonging to the man who is actually in the arena rather than to the critic who stands apart pointing out his flaws, and of course audience sympathies are already stacked in favor of the pilot who brought everyone home safely rather than some suits who want to bring him down. Still, the NTSB board holds all the power in this contest, and Sully could lose his career as a pilot and safety expert should they decide against him.
The screenplay of Sully (written by Todd Komarnicki, based on Sullenberger’s book Highest Duty) includes some dutiful attempts to individualize a few passengers—an old lady in a wheelchair, a father traveling with his grown sons—but the writing and acting in these scenes is at the level of a run-of-the-mill TV show. The script also sketches in a bit of Sully’s background and his current status as the head of a suburban family (Laura Linney does yeoman service as his wife, although she doesn’t have much to work with), and there’s some good acting in the supporting roles, including Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Skiles, and Anna Gunn as a more sympathetic member of the NTSB board. Still, all that feels almost beside the point, as Sully is a Tom Hanks vehicle all the way. Well, Hanks and the IMAX camera, perhaps.
The real reason to see Sully is for the splendid recreation of the river landing and its aftermath, which is truly impressive, especially if you see it on an IMAX screen as I did. Knowing what happened is different from seeing it enacted before your very eyes, and the technical wizardry that produced the entirely believable landing scenes is the single most impressive aspect of this film. In the end, Sully is not a great film, but it’s an entertaining one that moves briskly (at 96 minutes it’s one of Eastwood’s shorter films) and celebrates the old-fashioned virtues of its title character. | Sarah Boslaugh