2010s, 3/4, Clint Eastwood, Drama, Review

Sully

#21 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

The second entry in Clint Eastwood’s informal “real heroes” trilogy, Sully tells the story of the Miracle on the Hudson, and it does it in an interesting way. Essentially swapping out its first and second acts, the tale of Captain Chelsey Sullenberger making impossible decisions to safely land an airliner on water is less about the event itself and more about the fallout, about the need of people to tear down someone who did something great. It ends up feeling a bit wan, like its trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, and it comes to a rather abrupt end, but the portrait of courage both during and after the fact are compelling nonetheless.

Sully (Tom Hanks) wakes up to a nightmare of him crashing his UA 1549 flight into the middle of Manhattan on that snowy January morning instead of landing safely on the Hudson as he actually did. What follows is the early morning of the next day when he and his copilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are staying in a hotel in New York, waiting for the next moves of the NTSB, the governing board that investigates every plane crash in America. Sully, a forty-year veteran of the skies starting as a boy learning on a crop duster leading to a career in the Air Force and as an airline pilot, is worried that the initial conversations he’s had with the board are trying to place the blame on him rather than on the accidental bird strike that took out both of the engines of the plane. There’s a line of dialogue about how the airline’s insurance company would rather it be Sully than the failure of the plane in the face of disaster  that may be the source of things, an implication of regulatory capture by larger, more powerful forces, but it gets no real attention and is dropped as quickly as it’s brought up.

The big thing about this opening is that it fully is the second act of the film, and that becomes obvious as it comes to a close and the next act begins with Sully buying a sandwich from a vendor in the airport and getting onto the plane to work through the preflight checklist with Skiles. It goes through most of the crash, and I think that ends up a mistake. The whole point of the journey we are on, the point of moving the structure around, is to make the portrait of the crash unclear to the viewer, to deny us key details so that we can’t be quite sure of Sully’s decision making, only for it to come together in the final act with the playing of the flight recorder. We see most of the crash from inside the cockpit here, and considering that the finale hinges on the playing of the flight recorder from inside the aircraft, it gives us too much information right off. There are key details missing from the second act telling (mostly the key moment where Sully pulls the plane to the right to line it up with the Hudson), but the bulk of it is there. I think to make the whole structural changes more effective, they needed to remove all of the cockpit stuff from this telling and let us see the individual pieces outside of it, namely the air traffic controller’s perspective, the tower’s, and those of the rescue personnel who helped get the people off the plane sitting in the middle of the river in winter. And then, in the final act, show us what happened on the inside. The current setup also has the weird effect of us seeing the whole thing, with only the smallest of variations, three separate times. It’s weirdly repetitive.

Still, the focus of the film really is Sully, and he’s dealing with all of his second-guessing after the fact. Could he have made it to Newark or the small airport in Jersey, Teterboro? That no one died is a heavy salve for him, but his decision could have lead to deaths from the crash itself to sitting in the nearly freezing water on top of a sinking aircraft until something outside of his control (rescue) came. He commiserates with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) over the phone about the potential of his entire career being defined by 208 seconds, and how he could be left with nothing if the board goes against him.

One of the most effective little things in the film ties into something Sully says at his hearing: that it wasn’t just him, that it was the work of everyone on board that led to a positive outcome in the face of disaster. That gets shown in the crash with the flight attendants working hard at keeping the people in their care safe, but there’s a tiny moment that helps highlight it even better. A man sits next to a woman with a baby. They don’t know each other. When the call comes to keep their heads down and that the plane is going to crash, the man takes the baby from the woman so he can cradle it more safely. It’s a small moment that very well may have led to saving the baby’s life that goes unheralded. It’s a key to understanding the film’s focus on the understated and small heroism that helps provide light in a dark world, and that’s what Eastwood is highlighting with this film as a whole. Sully is not a flashy hero, but he was cool-headed and worked hard to help.

The NTSB stuff feels off, though. I’m not opposed to depictions of bureaucrats going too far and hurting the little people because they just feel like its in their power, but these people are presented too professionally by actors like Anna Gunn to sell that. The implication of regulatory capture is too briefly mentioned as well. In terms of holding it up against the reality, the events feel overblown, like they were trying to create movie drama where more low-key drama in the form of a general sense of unease in the face of a run of the mill investigation actually happened. Essentially, the NTSB is trying to set up Sully as the patsy in the film, but for what? They’re too thinly drawn to have any real motivation, and that may be to prevent any kind of lawsuit. The writer, Todd Komarnicki, takes it as far as he can go without quite hitting on defamation. It provides some dramatic moments in the public hearing, like when Sully gets them to add 35 seconds to the live feed of the simulation happening in France which leads to his exoneration. It’s a thinly entertaining moment that provides vindication for our hero, but the fight feels so manufactured that I resist it.

Also, it just kind of stops. Sully gets cleared, Skiles gets to have a joke, and the movie fades to black. Sully doesn’t get reunited with Lorraine or his daughters. There’s no denouement of any kind. He gets his vindication, and it ends. It’s an odd way to go out.

Still, as a portrait of the lowkey heroism that can come out of nowhere and inspire, Sully is a success. Tom Hanks brings a quiet dignity to the pilot, and Eckhart is energetic as his copilot out to tell anyone that Sully did everything right. Eastwood handles the production with his normal professionalism, including with the special effects. This ends up halfway between a strictly realistic take on the incident and the more fully Hollywoodized version of events as presented in Robert ZemeckisFlight. Flight is easily the better film, but that’s because it chooses one side of that equation and sticks to it. Sully‘s dancing on the edge between realism and Hollywood convention undermines it a bit, but it remains an entertaining and quality look at the event.

Rating: 3/4

8 thoughts on “Sully”

  1. I appreciate Clint telling these stories.
    But like you, I think the way he told this one is all messed up.
    I figured if anyone would put a story right down the middle it would be Clint Eastwood but no, gotta jumble it all up. Honestly….I’m putting that mistake on Blu Murray. The has mostly worked as an assistant editor on Eastwood flicks, he was given a full movie to edit and he tried to show off. It didn’t work.

    I don’t hate it but it’s not one I’d revisit.

    Unlike Bullet Train…man, that was fun!

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    1. I kind of like the switching of the acts, but the unfolding of the story is just not built right. It feels repetitive rather than illuminating.

      Bullet Train is Smokin Aces done…better.

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  2. I liked it, the re-creation of the accident was good. You hear the news story, everyone got off, no big deal, but seeing it, the reality was a little more harrowing than that. Still, I thought it was pretty thin as a story – accident and then hearing. And while watching the hearing I had a similar reaction to yours. I wondered if the hearing was more of a formality, the sort of thing done after any accident, rather than an outright attempt to prove that Sullenberger had not reacted properly once the bird strike happened.

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    1. The people on the real NTSB complained about the film, especially the hearing, because it really does look like they’re out to get Sully, but they insist it was never like that. So, maybe the truth was like the film, but, as low of an opinion as I have of government bureaucrats, the truth was probably more mundane and professional than dramatized.

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