Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Running time: 96 minutes
Steered by a strong and convincing Tom Hanks performance, Eastwood’s account of the remarkable US Airways Flight 1549 landing has a welcoming emotional understating, but lacks any real power in a film of skewed messages.
Based on the autobiography Highest Duty, the film follows Chesley Sullenberger’s 2009 emergency landing on the Hudson river, and the subsequent media attention and government investigation in the aftermath.
Sully, with its many limitations, rather surprisingly does something quite unique for films of its genre: it takes the true-life event and rather than creating a lengthy, one-time spectacle for audiences, revisits the extraordinary landing time and again, replaying the experience from different viewpoints and at times altering the outcome. This is because Eastwood’s film is one about perspective. He lays on thick the facts and occurrences plainly and simply, but presents enough vantage points of the same event to elicit enough doubt among the characters that a running emotional and moral dilemma comes to the fore.
Tom Hanks, as one might expect, brings his usual likeability and warm charisma to the titular protagonist, while simultaneously presenting a more complex, conflicted character arc in the form of a man who knows (or at least thinks) he has done the right thing, yet simply refuses to accept the hero label that has been thrust upon him. While his own reservations about his actions in the sky that ultimately saved 155 lives are difficult to fully get on board with, Hanks’ assured performance drives the film towards where it thinks it should be on an emotional level. As a spectacle, Eastwood’s re-creation of the landing itself is a big pull. Visually impressive and utterly terrifying in equal measure, Sully undoubtedly delivers on its showstopper – made even more impressive through the use of IMAX cameras.
However, contrary to the assurance of Hanks’ performance and expertly delivered set-plays, Eastwood’s film feels far less assertive and convincing in the messages it is trying to convey. The idea that such an extraordinarily courageous deed should not go unpunished certainly feels misaligned at times. Moreover, it appears as though the film’s elephant in the room – the unavoidable fact that every passenger survived – is forgotten by almost everyone except for Hanks and Eckhart’s characters. The view that, in the eyes of the hierarchy, Sullenberger’s heroics are only redeemable if concurrent with results of a flight recreation simulator, seem a touch implausible. By the final trial scenes, the narrative appears to have ventured towards a disappointingly black and white moral battle between Sullenberger and a plethora of hollow-cut government ‘baddies.’ Frustratingly, Sully, for large sections, seems to be content with cruising at heights of conventionality; with only a few fleeting ascendances into something much deeper and more interesting.
Despite resisting the temptation to over-indulge us in sentiment for the most part, where the film also nose-dives into mediocrity are the times when Eastwood tries far too hard to hammer home the emotional points he is trying to make. There are half-baked attempts to give some of the passenger’s identities, but this is done so ineffectively and the crash sequences done so well that this attempt at an added emotional layer feels utterly needless and manipulative. Equally, the scenes of Sullenberger’s early flying days seem over-cooked and unnecessary when expressing his lifelong love affair with flying. There are also a number of sequences that evoke uncomfortable parallels to 9/11 – a needless and risky tactic by Eastwood that certainly won’t sit well with some viewers.
A re-enactment of extraordinary heroics – despite glimmers of greatness and a strong central performance – makes for a very ordinary film.