Sully (2016) / Drama

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
Running Time: 96 min.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn
Small role: Katie Couric
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Todd Komarnicki (based on the 2010 book, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters", by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow)

Review published September 10, 2016

Sully is a docudrama that tells the story of the events surrounding the water landing in the New York's Hudson River for a commercial jet en route to Charlotte piloted by veteran Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Hanks, A Hologram for the King) on January 15, 2009.  The Airbus A320 lost both engines after flying into a large flock of Canada geese turing takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, causing Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Eckhart, London Has Fallen) to have to make the quick decision on whether they could make it back to LaGuardia or a nearby airstrip, or if they must take the risky chance of downing the plane in the icy river.  The well-publicized end result on that fateful morning was that Sully, all of the crew, and all 150 passengers survived that day, dubbed the "Miracle on the Hudson", making the pilot an overnight celebrity and hero in the eyes of millions. 

While many will go into Sully knowing how things transpired in those 208 seconds in flight, as well as the rescue mission afterward, what isn''t as well known is that Sully's heroic deeds weren't deemed by everyone to have been the right thing to do, as an investigation by members of the National Transportation Safety Board questioned whether the plane could have made it to a landing strip back at LaGuardia or New Jersey's Teterboro Airport, which would have saved everyone on board without the trauma or drowning risk, and would have also saved the multimillion-dollar aircraft.  The bulk of the film shows the subsequent investigation of the events by the NTSB, as well as how Sully is troubled with doubt and guilt, as well as his PTSD-fueled hallucinations on what could have happened had he followed standard procedure rather than his instincts (9/11-style crashes into buildings are truly harrowing to witness), on his actions that sent a large jetliner into an important major waterway.

Directed by Clint Eastwood (American Sniper, Jersey Boys), based on an adaptation of Sully's memoirs from Todd Komarnicki (screenwriter for the dreadul Perfect Stranger), Sully spins its narrative by jumping around the timeline, introducing us to the ramp-up to the investigation and Sully's fractured home life, before going back to show us a dramatization of the water landing right in the center of the movie.  As such, it allows us have doubts in our mind on the actions taken by Sully in real time, putting new context on well-known events, before pushing forward to the climax of the film regarding the NTSB board findings on Sully's decisions, which, if Sully is found culpable, would be ruinous to his four-decades-long career, sterling reputation, and, given he would lose his job and pension, would further sink him and his family into financial hardship.  This narrative structure also allows for the emotional component and weighty themes to come to a head, making an otherwise routine re-enactment have some gripping tension on how things will ultimately play out.   

Some of the less-successful moments of Sully come from the multiple perspectives on the events from the eyes of several passengers, rescue workers, and employees in aviation, in addition to flashbacks to Sully's early life as a young pilot, seemingly there to make the story more nuance, but merely pad out the story to make it a proper length for a big theatrical release. Ninety-six minutes is relatively short for a prestige release (it's the shortest Eastwood has turned in to date), but I'd wager a dynamite 85-minute version would have not led people to feel cheated in entertainment one bit.  Not that the side-story approach is a wrong one necessarily, but the choices of who is spotlighted in the film leads to confusion as to why their particular stories are significant (a father and two adult sons boarding at the last minute due to a missed connection isn't compelling).  There is also the emotional trauma incurred by the air traffic controller trying to guide Sully to safety that feels like something that isn't as significant t the overall piece to warrant so many minutes of screen time to showcase. Lastly, the CG work involving the water landing barely looks more realistic than what we might see on a computer flight simulator, which, given how prestige of a release Sully is supposed to be, is a real disappointment.

Nevertheless, the film is still absorbing in how it plays, thanks to the talent of everyone on board.  Tom Hanks delivers another terrific, class-act performance as Sully, who is a taciturn man with little nuance, but with Hanks inhabiting his furrowed brow and calm-but-introspective demeanor, we see just enough of his personality to get where he's coming from without the need to see much more.  It's commendable that Hanks and Eastwood imbue Sully with relateability without manufacturing big, showy breakdowns to try to make an Oscar campaign for its star, who delivers exactly what the part calls for, rather than what will fill up a highlight reel for Academy voters to consider. Eastwood's lackadaisical style works well in setting up the characters, and the fact that we're invested does indeed make for a bit of investment in the tension of the re-enactment of the even from various perspectives, even when shown on a number of occasions during the course of the film.

If you do see the film, and it is highly recommended to do so, be sure to stay through the beginning of the closing credits for stills of the real-life event, as well as an emotional final scene with the real-life passengers and crew of the fated flight.  It's perhaps the more emotionally stirring scene in a film that already had enough of them to make for one of the better films to come out in 2016 and had audiences at my screening, as no doubt many others in theaters around the country, clapping in their seats.

Qwipster's rating:

2016 Vince Leo