Emerging from Sully, one thought immediately and continuously rolled through my head: this true story, miraculous and inspiring though it is, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to cinematic adaptation. A straight account of the “Miracle on the Hudson” would be momentarily riveting and then be over, since the event itself lasted only 208 seconds. The other option, chosen by Sully, is to chart the immediate, unseen aftermath of that “forced water landing” on January 15, 2009, a still-thin recounting of mild controversy and marginal opposition so lacking in tangible drama that it’s forced to pad itself with repetitive sequences and juice its villains with movie steroids, all the while still struggling to fill 90 minutes. It’s one of those inspirational true stories with so little pushback that all the subsequent drama must be scrounged from the margins.
It is certainly true that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger stood trial before the National Transportation Safety Board while the rest of us were busy watching celebratory news coverage. The degree to which said trial was a mustache-twirling witch hunt, it’s hard to say whether that’s factual or the product of the film’s manufactured drama, a real-life story coated in a heavy layer of syrup. Clint Eastwood is the director, and Sully is the latest unfortunate example of latter-day Eastwood anti-nuance, its narrative delivered with a sledgehammer swing, the faint hint of thematic murkiness snuffed out by the square-jawed stiltedness of its presentation.
Tom Hanks plays Sully, in a performance of requisite Hanksian gravitas that frequently keeps the film from slipping into full melodrama. He channels a sort of restrained inner torment – he remains calm and centered even as post-traumatic stress inevitably kicks in. It’s the kind of mature self-reflection one might exhibit after they commandeer the most remarkably controlled aircraft water landing in recent history. Was it the wisest decision to land on the water just because it happened to work out? Could the plane have made it back to LaGuardia safely? These are the anguished thoughts that play out on Hanks’ face. It’s a grounded centerpiece performance in a film that permits most others to drift into caricature. That’s either the result of extreme ineptitude, or, more likely, it’s an intentional decision to bring the Sully character to the foreground, one 3-D character on a 2-D plane. Interesting, but ultimately unsuccessful – which becomes an unfortunate pattern in this film.
One poor decision after another plagues the film’s drama. The NTSB figureheads are positioned as snarling villains, leaving good actors like Anna Gunn and Mike O’Malley looking nearly constipated. The crash scene is formidable, though not so formidable that it needed to be shown in full three different times, in the same shot sequence, like redundant replay. Even the big trial showdown finale consists of watching a static flight simulation played four times over, an exercise more invigorating for the on-screen observers than the theater audience. The repetitive muddle is the combined result of Eastwood’s oddly heavy-handed approach and a screenplay, by Todd Komarnicki, which is so restless with the paucity of substantive conflict that it must contort itself to create some. From one scene to the next, Sully is a moment-of-truth docudrama, stolid character study, and earnest fight-the-power hero’s journey, but never finds its footing in any of those variations.
Lest I get flooded with messages charging me with slinging mud at the movie about the wonderful heroic man and his remarkable aviation feat that saved 155 lives, I would remind everyone that the real-life story and its filmic representation are two separate endeavors. Sully is a hero. What he did is astounding. His story is about as sterling and flawless as any we’ll witness in our lifetime. And that’s ultimately why a manufactured big-screen tribute, well-intentioned though it is, wasn’t necessary. The Miracle on the Hudson belongs in the hearts of the survivors and their families, it belongs to our memories, it belongs to history.