Some incredible stories simply don’t deserve movies. That’s a truth that’s hard for Hollywood to accept. So difficult, in fact, that sometimes they will bend over backward to fill in the blanks. Enter Clint Eastwood’s Sully, which attempts to wrap a compelling narrative around 2009’s Miracle on The Hudson. There is no denying that what happened on that January afternoon was nothing short of amazing. However, an incredible event does not always involve the most fascinating of people. While Captain Chesley Sullenberger is undoubtedly a true American hero, he’s not exactly Hollywood material. Eastwood’s film knows this but never makes a compelling case for telling his story anyway.
The film opens post-miracle with Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) under investigation. The higher-ups have their doubts that Sully’s decision to land the plane in the Hudson was necessary. In fact, simulations have brought to light that he might have been able to perform a safe airport landing. Despite having saved every passenger that day, these revelations cast a shadow of doubt on Sully. He ponders if he made a reckless decision, despite the urges of Skiles and his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) to embrace what he did. Meanwhile, he finds himself overwhelmed with the constant media attention, which has turned him into a worldwide legend.
Eastwood is very clearly chomping at the bit to bring this harrowing near-disaster to the screen. However, he finds himself so focussed on crafting that sequence, that everything in between is neglected. This is one of the least dynamic biopics in some time. Early on, it settles into variations of the same few scenes and never spices things up. Sully and Skiles defend their case, we see a piece of the crash, Sully has a moment to himself in which something regular haunts him, and then he calls his wife. Rinse, repeat. Not only is this structure droning, but it’s weighed down by horrific dialogue. Every exchange here feels ripped out of a parody of Oscar bait movies. We’ve got our achingly on the nose soliloquies, and our “naturalistic” banter that implies that Eastwood hasn’t mingled amongst people in decades. Honestly, the birds who flew into the engine that day likely had more interesting things to say than any of the characters.
Hanks, who’s made a legendary career out of playing ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations, struggles like crazy here. In every moment, he’s desperately trying to pull pathos out of moments that just aren’t there. Eastwood’s direction is so restrained, that Sully is never given even a moment to break his stout exterior. While characters who are deliriously committed to a job are often fascinating (see Eastwood’s American Sniper) they need to be dynamic. It’s a shame, as Hanks is perfect for the role, but there’s just nothing there for him. Meanwhile, the esteemed supporting cast faces very similar struggles. Eckhart attempts to provide the film’s heart and soul, but his interactions with Sully never rise above contrivance. He’s completely supportive, and that’s about it. Linney is given embarrassingly little to do. She appears only in a series of phone call scenes that confine her to the “concerned wife” stereotype.
For all of Sully’s flaws, it can at least boast about how well its central set-piece is executed. Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern do a fine job capturing the intensity of those fateful 208 seconds. They play with perspective, scale, and the wide framing of their IMAX cameras to make the audience brace for impact. The passengers’ fear is palpable, and the rescue effort is earnest and uplifting without being over the top. However, the film even undercuts the impact of this sequence. Eastwood insists on showing us the crash multiple times in slightly different ways. By what feels like the fifteenth time we’ve seen the same events, all the spontaneity is gone. It feels completely procedural. Ironically, feelings of detachment towards situations like this is exactly what Eastwood is trying to fight. In an attempt to make a statement about human intuition vs mechanical precision, he gets caught up in the machinery of filmmaking.
Sully ultimately does the greatest disservice possible to it’s distinguished subject. It does nothing to make him interesting beyond his moment of heroism. There really is no room for this film after Robert Zemeckis masterfully mined the same territory in Flight. Eastwood is so concerned with celebrating the captain’s simplicity, that he didn’t bother to build complexity around him. Hanks tries his best, and the main centerpiece is well-crafted, but there’s nothing to support them. Although he attempts to put the audience in the captain’s chair, Eastwood has made a film that would barely pass for a simulation.