On January 15, 2009, events in the airspace over New York City revealed Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger as a hero -- the veteran pilot managing to successfully land a damaged plane in the Hudson River with zero casualties following multiple bird strikes. Justifiably, the event made national news, and "Sully" immediately became a household name. As such, it's no surprise that the incident has been turned into a new big screen dramatization -- but as you may predict for a movie that centers around an incident that was over in about 208 seconds, director Clint Eastwood's adaptation just doesn't have enough meat to sustain a fulfilling and engaging feature-length film.
In an attempt to make the narrative more substantial, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki appropriately made Sully as a character piece, built to be driven by Tom Hanks' performance as the audience follows the titular pilot through events following the water landing of US Airways Flight 1459. He has nightmares about what could have happened if everything went wrong; sporadic phone calls with his stressed and scared wife (Laura Linney); and deals with the pressure of an investigation questioning if his decision to go to the Hudson River was the right one. All of this would potentially be substantial enough for a fictionalized take on the events, where twists and turns could change the game at any moment and big manufactured character moments can draw you in -- but, unfortunately, that's not what this movie is. Instead, the only tools at hand seem to be repetition and overly-stressed conflict, and it makes for a languid experience at the theater.
To be blunt, calling Sully merely repeat-y is a complete understatement, as it's difficult to think of any single event in the movie that isn't either constantly reexamined from different angles or re-run just to fill out the runtime. Predictably this includes many, many viewings of the plane's landing in the Hudson (featuring a mix of different perspectives), but that's far from the end of it. Sully has multiple identical phone conversation with his wife; multiple nightmares about the worst case scenario for US Airways Flight 1459; and multiple meetings with the same investigators who are repeating the same questions about the pilot's decisions. There are shockingly few scenes that manage to add to the story in a meaningful way, and it results in more drag than a plane taking off with its flaps up.
Compounding the movie's issues lacking substance is the fact that what actually does pass for it in the film still ultimately feels forced. The most significant conflict in Sully finds the National Transportation Safety Board (its leaders played by Mike O'Malley and Anna Gunn) questioning whether or not the titular pilot could have safely landed his damaged plane at either LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport - and while Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), take all kinds of issue with the inquiry, the reality is that the analysis is clearly completely logical and appropriate. The investigators are set up as the antagonists of the story, and while it would be unfair to say that they are vilified (they don't exactly come across as hell-bent on destroying Sullenberger's reputation), they instead play as lackluster gatekeepers at the Hall Of Heroes, narratively stalling Sully's entrance just to create drama. Add that the script never paints its eponymous character as anything but flawless and beyond doubt, and the result is a drive-less plot carrying the feature.
At the very least it can be said that it's a film made and performed mostly competently. As we've just come to expect from him every time out, Tom Hanks does give a legitimately fantastic performance, fully disappearing into the character, even as he doesn't have much to work with in the way of charisma and energy from Sully's personality (in fact, this leaves a door open for Aaron Eckhart to steal a few scenes with a handful of snappy lines). Clint Eastwood earns some praise as well, as the scenes depicting the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1459 are legitimately thrilling -- particularly captured in full IMAX. Unfortunately, these positive elements don't succeed in making up for Sully's much more significant issues.
It's a long-standing tradition in Hollywood that every major news story that sweeps the nation needs to, at least, go into development in some form - but there are some that just aren't fit for adaptation. Given that the Miracle On The Hudson event unfolded in the timespan of under four minutes, one could have easily predicted that Sully would fit into this category -- and that's exactly what it does.
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