Film Review – Sully
On January 15th, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York toward Charlotte, North Carolina. Soon after take off, the plane ran into a flock of birds, a number of which struck and disabled both engines. The captain of the plane – Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – quickly assessed the situation, realized that they were too low to make it to any nearby runway, and decided the only option the plane had was to land on the Hudson River. Captain Sully successfully landed the plane on the river, saving the 155 crew and passengers onboard. The time elapsed from the bird strike to the water landing was precisely two hundred and eight seconds.
This true-life story captured the nation: you couldn’t watch the television or read a news article without it being the featured headline. The composure Captain Sully displayed in a moment of extreme tension – along with his flight crew – is awe inspiring. Where most people would panic, he and his team operated with professionalism, efficiency, and courage. You have New York City and a disabled plane; two elements when juxtaposed together call to mind terrible memories. But this time despite the danger, we have an instance where the best possible outcome occurred.
With so much media attention and overwhelming good spirit, it would only make sense that someone would attempt to turn this into a film. That director turned out to be Clint Eastwood in Sully (2016). Going in, I wondered how Eastwood (along with screenwriter Todd Komarnicki) would go about adapting the events of that fateful day if everything took place in the span of less than four minutes. They work around this obstacle by focusing more on the storyline that happened immediately after the landing. We see Captain Sully (Tom Hanks) coming to terms with being a media sensation, as well as the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into whether he made the right call by going to the water or if the plane was actually operating well enough to make it to an airport.
A lot of narrative padding went into this production. Captain Sully is shown as such a good-hearted person, filled with grace and a humble demeanor that as a dramatic character there isn’t much to dig into. The writing and direction struggle to add narrative energy, going in different tangents trying to find something to draw us in. Captain Sully did the best that one could possibly do in that situation, so the NTSB investigation doesn’t have any push because well…how could anyone cast aspersion on the guy? Eastwood also includes unnecessary flashback scenes, with a young Sully just learning how to fly, and as a fighter pilot in the Air Force. These add very little to Captain Sully as a character. I suppose they’re there to show the audience the experience he had that helped him guide the plane down safely, but since his expertise already shows by the very fact that we see him land the plane, those bits felt superfluous. And oh, speaking of “overdoing it,” Eastwood shows the landing over and over again. The repetitiveness gets tiresome, making me think that it was done simply to extend the runtime.
Tom Hanks reminds us why he is one of the great actors and stars of his generation. He doesn’t look anything like the real Captain Sully, but there’s probably no one on Earth better suited for the role. Hanks is one of cinema’s most lovable good guys, which would explain why some of his best performances are of good people caught in extraordinary circumstances (Jim Lovell in Apollo 13, Chuck Nolan in Cast Away, Captain Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips, James B. Donovan in Bridge of Spies). Here, he plays Captain Sully with a stoic persona. There is vulnerability bubbling underneath – a compliment to Hanks’ ability to bring a fairly straight character to life. But Hanks truly shines while in the plane, trying to remain calm and focused even when anxiety and fear creep up inside of him. The way Hanks expresses his concern while making sure all 155 people on board made it out shows how easily he can pull our sympathies.
As a film with strong character development and plotting, Sully comes up short. The production never conceives the scenes on the ground as well as it does while the characters are in the air. It’s a very difficult task to grab the attention of an audience with a story so well known. But as a tribute to the real men and women involved, it works. From the effectiveness of the flight crew, to the passengers that helped each other, to the work of the control tower, to the rescue team and healthcare professionals that made sure everyone was safe and accounted for, it took a group effort to ensure catastrophe was avoided. At the very least, this will encourage people to look up and learn more about these real world heroes.