Sully explains that the water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 only lasted a matter of minutes. He explains this bitterly because he was the captain, and these moments now eclipse a career in aviation. Clint Eastwood’s Sully confirms this theory: there are flashes of Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger’s early life, yet Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki film Flight 1549 from four different perspectives. The flight is indeed harrowing, and Eastwood finds a shrewd way for us to understand it fully: each flashback adds something more to the story, in terms of the danger and the heroism involved. Still, Sully is nowhere as thrilling as when the airliner is in the Hudson. Komarnicki shoehorns a one-sided drama about a perfunctory hearing, forcing his hero to serve as a metaphor for individual success in the face of government intervention.
Tom Hanks plays Sully with a mix of humility, dignity, and gentle humor. When we first meet him, Flight 1549 is already over. He’s stuck in New York City, along with his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), because there is a preliminary inquiry from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). They probe into Sully’s conduct, asking insulting questions since Sully is certain he did the right thing. The NTSB is more skeptical because their computer simulations all conclude the plane should have returned back to LaGuardia airport, instead of the drink. One of Sully’s ironies is that these hearings pair with a media blitz, where Katie Couric, David Letterman, and strangers treat Sully as a hero (he hates the word). The NTSB goes deeper into their probe, and Eastwood uses that as an opportunity for one version of Flight 1549 after another.
There is one version of the flight that is more compelling than all the others. Instead of steeling his camera on the cockpit or cabin, Eastwood follows the safety workers involved with the flight. Using Eastwood’s trademark languid, classical shooting style, there is a long sequence where an air traffic controller tries to help Sully, unaware of the danger in the sky. It plays out with cruel imperfect information: the flight disappears from the controller’s radar. Eastwood also follows ferry drivers, first responders, and passengers as they struggle to survive. The nuts and bolts details of the rescue effort is compelling because of professionalism, not danger. Everyone did the job expected of them, and nothing more. This must appeal to Eastwood, who comes from the silent solemn duty that defined the Greatest Generation.
The scenes around the flight veer from tedious to downright poor taste. Laura Linney appears as Sully’s wife, and she has no actual scenes with Hanks (they’re all over the phone). Their conversation is never interesting, except to provide some background on Sully’s personal life from that period. Yes, even airline pilots worry about the mortgage, and that does not stop even after The Miracle on the Hudson. What I found unnerving is Eastwood’s flashback technique: there are nightmare sequences where Sully imagines the flight was a failure. This means Eastwood subjects us to multiple scenes where an airplane crashes into the New York City skyline. Imagery like this meant to conjure up exactly one thing: Sully’s adversary were birds, not terrorists, and yet Eastwood’s technique equates them for the viewer. One secondary character remarks that he’s glad Flight 1549 did not have the same fate as the 9/11 attacks, and that should have been enough. The disaster-porn imagery is not just disturbing. It’s also cynical.
Hanks has played likable, decent heroes for over two decades, and now he can draw from history to inform his current performances. There is the quiet courage of Philadelphia, as well as the frank competence of Catch Me If You Can. Sully is more reserved character than the ones Hanks usually portrays, which is why flashes of good humor are all the more welcome. Of the supporting cast, the real stand-out is Eckhart. Beneath that truly excellent mustache is a character who recognizes Sully’s turmoil, and perhaps craves the same attention. Their dialogue is mostly shorthand, at least until everyone hears the flight’s cockpit recordings. Hanks handles the scene with quiet grace, and the friendship between these men is a welcome antidote to the imagined explosions from earlier.
At 96 minutes, Sully is a short film in comparison to many Eastwood films. But even with that crisp runtime, this a film with about half as much genuine material. The frequent Flight 1549 flashbacks lead to diminishing marginal returns, and there is exposition so that Sully’s “a-ha” moment over the NTSB hearing has more dramatic weight than was actually there. On the whole, however, this is a fitting tribute to a man who did his job, even when that job required him to be extraordinary. Sully is never invasive, and goes out of its way to respect Sully’s privacy. The real Sully is probably embarrassed by this film, anyway, and not just for the obvious reasons.