"Sully" Takes Wrong Approach To Amazing True Story

Few have made the climb from everyman to American hero faster than airline captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger did in January 2009. In the amount of time it takes to listen to Peter, Paul And Mary’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” – three and a half minutes – the veteran pilot turned a potentially disastrous Airbus A320 bird strike into a successful emergency water landing on the Hudson River. Somehow, in the face of dual engine failure, all 155 people aboard survived with only a few significant injuries among them. It made for a mid-winter, feel-great story that sustained for months. There were presidential accolades, congressional resolutions, and even billboards.

But apparently the story of US Airways Flight 1549 didn’t give octogenarian director Clint Eastwood the same fuzzy feelings as it did everyone else. Feature film “Sully” sees the Hollywood icon turn the incident into a weird, paranoid screed against the government (in this case, the National Transportation Safety Board), refashioning an inspiring story into one as cold as the Hudson River in January.

Two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks stars as the title character, doing everything in his power to keep said coldness at bay. His gentle charisma has never been more essential, carrying Todd Komarnicki’s thematically indecisive screenplay for long stretches. It begins just after the incident, with Sully experiencing significant posttraumatic stress disorder. The NTSB’s investigation commences immediately, with Sully corralled in a Manhattan hotel room, only able to speak to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) in short bursts. His mind is everywhere and nowhere at once (no one sells this better than Hanks). Hers is squarely on the encampment of reporters congregating in their front yard.

Initially, Sully’s dark visions of plane crashes and his distrust of the NTSB is an intriguing approach, suggesting a dark underbelly to unexpected – and perhaps unwanted – fame. His nightmares include imagery obviously meant to invoke 9/11, which is strained but effective. It successfully gets to the core of the 2000s American subconscious. But as the film moves on, the NTSB investigators become more broadly villainous even as Sully’s mental health fades into the background. Agents Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) turn out not to be manifestations of the captain’s anxieties, merely cartoonish villains with inexplicable motives. They’re also fictional.

While there is a lyrical quality to the depiction of Sully’s personal torment – accented by a typically lovely piano-based Clint Eastwood score – the water landing itself is anything but. It’s stiff re-enactment, weaved throughout the final hour of the film to muddled effect. Eastwood and longtime assistant editor Blu Murray play awfully fast and loose with time and perspective, attempting to show us the incident from different points of view, all ramping up to the cockpit version. But by the time we see the landing through Sully’s eyes, what little suspense there was in the first place is long gone.

Aaron Eckhart is his usually endearing self as Sully’s co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, but he and everyone else aboard Flight 1549 are given tragically little screen time. Aside from a few token attempts to give life to a handful of passengers, the script doesn’t attempt to get to know anyone but its lead. And even then, the film never truly gets to what makes Sullenberger tick. What makes a hero.

A pair of flashbacks to Sully’s youth hint at the autobiography the screenplay is adapted from, at the person behind the valor. Even if they’re pieces that don’t fit, they’re much warmer and more insightful than anything else in the film, begging for some kind, any kind of emotion to tag along. It never comes. Only bizarre vignettes of a privacy-starved Sully jogging through Times Square, uncovered, in the middle of winter.

If only the failures of the climactic face-off between Sullenberger and the NTSB began and ended with its blatant cribbing from Robert Zemeckis’ vastly superior “Flight.” The human flight simulations that come with it become unintentionally hilarious, their flat refrain of “Birds!” turning into one of the year’s most inadvertently quotable lines. From the rest of the film, it’s hard to know if Eastwood knows what humor is, let alone if the scene is supposed to be funny.

And then there are the end credits: a real-life reunion between Sullenberger, his crew, and his passengers. It’s the only true moment of joy in the entire picture.

“Sully” is as baffling a film as Eastwood has been a part of. It’s photographed well and Hanks can’t help but charm. But it whiffs on the reason for its very existence – it’s a feel-good story – becoming crankier as it rattles along. This shouldn’t be a surprise coming from an 86-year-old filmmaker, but it is a disappointment considering the material and the sizable budget ($60 million). The film doesn’t even understand that its villains are only doing the same thing as its hero: their jobs. Rarely has a true story flown so far over the head of a filmmaker.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: September 9, 2016
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Todd Komarnicki
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some peril and brief strong language)