Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” recounts the 2009 plight of US Airways Flight 1549 in which Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played in the film by Tom Hanks with an impeccable moustache, successfully landed his airbus and every one of its 155 passengers in the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both engines. If already knowing the event’s outcome might seem destined to siphon its re-telling of any drama, rest assured, that is not the case. As a director, Eastwood is notorious for his no fuss approach, and in the case of the Miracle on the Hudson re-creation, it works to his advantage. While there are electrifying moments, such as the stomach-dropping sound design that effectively approximates the terror of suddenly realizing – feeling – you are on an engineless plane, what interests Eastwood more is heroic pragmatism. Flight attendants calmly walk the aisles as they prepare passengers for a crash and turn “Head down, stay down!” into an all-business mantra. The pilots, meanwhile, square soberly with the unthinkable by thinking their way through it. You realize as you watch Hanks’ demeanor, echoed in the excellently composed shots of his character scanning his surroundings for a place to land and then realizing the best runway is actually the water, that here is someone simply good at his job. In a vacuum, that doesn’t sound exciting; in “Sully” it becomes a kind of no-nonsense suspense.
The problem, however, is that one grand re-creation does not a movie make. As such, you can feel Eastwood and his screenwriter Todd Komarnicki searching to find a story to tell around Sully’s piloting miracle, cycling through a few loose narrative threads, without really following through on any of them, It teases something akin to an investigation procedural as Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart with an even more impeccable moustache and a polite incredulousness at being grilled, undergo questioning by the National Transportation Safety Board about their decision to ditch the plane. Alas, this is less abou what really happened than mimicking a banal courtroom drama with a climactic showdown by way of flight simulations that transforms the NTSB into one-note, string-pulling villains.
It also teases a character study, an inward examination of Sully coping in the aftermath of tragedy, but it never digs much deeper than a few Bad Dreams, none more ineptly conceived and conveyed than Katie Couric as herself appearing in Sully’s nightmare, which feels like a “30 Rock” scene played straight. And a few phone calls to his wife (Laura Linney) never mine for much, raising possible issues, like a real estate quandary, and then forgetting about them. “Sully” even teases a story of New York’s coming together in the face of a crisis, but that is mostly limited to a few actions in the water post-landing and Michael Rapaport as a bartender meant to embody the whole city’s grateful attitude. This is window dressing more than any substantial storyline.
If there is one tantalizing thread, it is the idea of a lifetime worth of experience in the air having built to this moment for Sully. If movies sometimes are too explicit in character flashbacks only relating to precisely what’s happening in the present, rather than presenting the full scope of a backstory, it becomes an advantage here, as a pair of Sully’s youthful experiences, like landing a wounded fighter jet, come across cosmically connected to the Miracle of the Hudson. But like those calls between Sully and his spouse, the idea is only raised, not followed through, an intriguing seed the screenplay never cultivates.
“Sully’s” single successful through line is Tom Hanks. In the last few years he’s done well giving grounded performances of real people and his Captain Sullenberger is no different. In a way, it picks up from where his Captain Phillips left off. If Hanks’s Phillips was so much quiet determination under pressure, he let all that fall away in the film’s remarkable closing sequence, where every ounce of emotion he necessarily put on hold melts away.
Hanks never lets Sully have that moment.When he is medically checked out, much as Captain Phillips was, the moment remains practical, not emotional, as Sully asks what his pulse rate is. Hanks takes that moment and fuses its meaning with his whole performance.
He is always focused and tactiturn, though never hanging on to tight, which is precisely, we gradually realize, what allowed him to be able to do exactly what he did in ditching the plane with nary a death. And it’s also why we are never quite able to get inside. Hanks plays Sully like a pilot trained to compartmentalize, to set aside the overwhelming emotion to get on with the task at hand, which is what his character does throughout the picture, as Hanks only allows for tremors of anguish and doubt to cross his face and only ever in private. In that way, it actually makes sense that he holds his wife at a phone’s distance and that the usual inner conflict of a character study is absent. His professionalism is paramount, and even if he is not always on a plane, in “Sully” he is permanently on duty.