Friday, September 9, 2016

'Sully' Manufactures Unnecessary Drama, Sells Subject Humorlessly Short

This review originally appeared on

I'll say up front that Sully was a difficult movie for me to watch, since one of my biggest fears is flying (and I happen to be getting on a plane Monday). But I would imagine even those who aren't scared of flying aren't thrilled by the prospect of crashing, so watching a realistic plane disaster probably instills some rapid heart beats in your average viewer, if not the virtual panic attack it gave me

And director Clint Eastwood certainly doesn't shy away from that crash (sorry Captain Sully, I mean "forced water landing"), showing the full event more than once throughout the course of the film. The story takes place during the weeks immediately following that "landing," although it jumps back in forth in time, showing the moments before the event, the event itself, and the investigation that followed, but not always in that order. There are also a few flashbacks to Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's earlier days as both an amateur and a military pilot.

One of the biggest miracles of the event dubbed "the Miracle on the Hudson" is that the man behind it turned out to be so perfectly modest, down to earth, and likable. So it was almost inevitable that, when the (equally) inevitable movie came out, he'd be played by the universally likable Tom Hanks.

Hanks has the white hair and mustache, and looks enough like Sully to seamlessly blend into the character. But ironically, the one thing Hanks's performance is lacking is levity, and anyone who has ever met the real Sully (who hails from the Bay Area) or has seen him in TV interviews knows that he's got an easy and often self-deprecating sense of humor.

Granted, the film takes place within the week after the crash, so it's possible that Sully wasn't at his most charming during that time. (Actual TV interviews that happened that week, however, tend to prove otherwise.)

And that's just part of the the film's overall problem, as it repeatedly gins up drama where it really isn't needed. I'm sure Sully had more than one moment of PTSD after January 15th, 2009, but the film's version of Sully shows him barely holding it together, imagining planes crashing every time he looks outside a New York window, waking up in cold sweats, and having many angst-ridden phone conversations with his wife (Laura Linney) who is back home in Danville. Alas, Linney's character is almost exactly like one she parodied in an Inside Amy Schumer sketch earlier this year. (Note to screenwriters: If the wife role requires her to spend the majority of it on the phone anxiously speaking to her husband, perhaps rethink it a bit.)

Sully's anxiety is centered on one constant question: Did I do the right thing?

Sure, it seems like a silly question to have when what you did basically saved the lives of over 150 people, and it had me thinking, so what if he could have landed at a nearby airport safely? The end result would have been the same.

Except for the loss of that plane, of course, and that's where the movie's manufactured villain comes in.

The implication is that the National Transportation Safety Board was more concerned with the loss of the aircraft than it was pleased by the avoidance of a deadly disaster. But I don't really believe the hearings that were conducted after the accident were as insulting and skewed (and brief) as they are in the film. I was disappointed to see Eastwood, who has been able to avoid black-and-white morality in a lot of his movies, resort to creating such a cartoonishly evil villain in the NTSB (as personified by Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, and Mike O'Malley).

Sully landing that plane on the Hudson is an amazing story, but it's also a pretty brief one. Captain Sully never wanted to be in the spotlight, and got out of it as quickly as he could. He also never took sole credit for the events that day, always acknowledging his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played in the film by Aaron Eckhart and his mustache), his crew, and New York's emergency response teams. It's ironic that a movie being advertised as "the story you didn't know" is actually at its best (and most harrowing — see it in IMAX for added heart stress!), when it's showing us the story we do know, namely the events of that cold afternoon in New York, on January 15th, 2009.

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