We all know what happened to US Airways Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009. This was the plane forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River just after take-off from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (who successfully landed the plane without killing any passengers) became an American hero overnight. If you were older than an infant in 2009, you know the story. And while Clint Eastwood’s Sully will undoubtedly be the feel-good movie of the fall, its story suffers from that very familiarity.
Don’t get me wrong. Sully is certainly interesting and entertaining. Eastwood’s straightforward direction is top-notch, as we surely expect. And who better to play a humble everyman thrust into the national spotlight for simply doing his job than Tom Hanks. In fact, his casting is so predictable my first thought when I saw the initial trailer was, “Who’d Clint Eastwood get to play Sully, Tom Hanks?” Hanks is perfect in the role, and that too is exactly as we might expect.
But the story is so predictable that the film lacks the necessary tension. Contrast Sully to two other films in which Tom Hanks played workaday Americans forced into acts of heroism. In Ron Howard’s excellent 1994 picture Apollo 13, Hanks played lead astronaut Jim Lovell, who successfully guided the doomed mission back to earth (again resulting in no loss of lives). While Hanks was again perfect in the role, the film crackled with energy. When the spacecraft finally landed in the ocean, we found ourselves sitting on the edge of our seats. Even though we all knew the outcome, Howard persuaded us to relive this potential disaster from the point of view of the astronauts. We realized we never knew the depth of their predicament, and that made for sheer excitement.
In 2013 Hanks played merchant mariner Captain Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips, whose craft was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the Gulf of Aden on the eastern Indian Ocean. Again, we knew the outcome, but director Paul Greengrass made us feel the tension through the eyes of the kidnapped captain. Another everyman hero in a gripping tale of bravery.
Sully simply lacks this sense of alarm. Part of the problem is that the entire Captain Sullenberger episode lasts a mere 204 seconds – as opposed to several days in the cases of Apollo 13 and the Somalian pirate commandeering. Eastwood wisely opens his film with a bit of a surprise — Captain Sullenberger’s nightmare of a potential crash-landing in Manhattan had he tried to steer his plane back to LaGuardia.
From this eerie opening, we proceed to the primary conflict of the picture when Sully and his assistant, First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, sporting an absolutely horrid moustache), face the National Transportation Safety Board’s accusation that computer simulations show Flight 1549 could have successfully been re-routed back to LaGuardia (or to a nearby airport in New Jersey), thereby avoiding the water-landing in the Hudson. As part of these trials, we relive the actual landing as experienced through the eyes of not only the pilots but also a few of the passengers.
Thankfully, Eastwood does not lay on the melodrama (as in any of the Airport movies of the 1970s), but we are treated to a dab of background information on about a half-dozen commuters. My favorite part of Sully was watching the rescue boats, police scuba team, medical personnel, and others react with valor and prowess once the plane lands. Eastwood is a master with these types of sequences, and he delivers here. I also liked the ending, when Sully and Skiles are forced to confront the NTSB in a trial. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a gratifying chapter in recent American history.
But while the Sullenberger incident is a one-of-a-kind story (something New Yorkers will share with their grandchildren years from now), it doesn’t rank with the Somalian hostage crisis in terms of terror, nor does it rank with Apollo 13 in terms of mere national weight. It’s a great story, well told and well-acted. But it lacks the anxiety we might expect with this kind of a tale. My prediction is Sully will not be remembered at Oscar time, but it will be one of the big crowd-pleasers of 2016.
Andy Ray’s reviews also appear on http://www.currentnightandday.com/
and he serves as a film historian for http://www.thefilmyap.com/