After J. Edgar and Jersey Boys, I had thought that Clint Eastwood was, to be blunt, getting too old and was losing his touch. Then came American Sniper, which had the force and energy of a 30-year-old behind it. Now comes Sully. It’s not in the same league as American Sniper, but instead is a Grand Entertainment in the old “movie-movie” tradition. It tells a clear (and well known) story well. There is nothing groundbreaking, little that’s excellent, but all of it is solid.
It’s the story of the Miracle on the Hudson that captivated America several years ago. Most of the challenges of presenting a story we think we know have been answered, and answered well. The film’s greatest strength is probably in the casting of its two leads—Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) and Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Of course Hanks is still Mr. All-American, and tends to represent that here more than act, in spite of a good performance. It’s not that he didn’t find a character to play. It’s just that that character wasn’t as nailed as say, Captain Phillips in the film of the same name (nor was Hanks’ acting as good). And it’s just that it’s impossible not to see our current national embodiment of rectitude and patriotism and see instead a man who was essentially shy in nature and didn’t want the attention.
Getting less screen time but granting strong support is the underrated Eckhart, who helps round out both action and character throughout. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, but there is no screen time shared, and Linney does her usual edgy, naturalistic thing. But she just doesn’t present either the warmth or sympathy of the other American actress who combines those two attributes, Julianne Moore. It’s necessary in terms of the narrative to show Mrs. Sully, I suppose, or the audience would be distracted wondering about Sully’s home life. But it doesn’t add anything to either our understanding or our hearts.
The script is generally strong, but also has one big flaw, and then falls apart at the end. The film structures itself like The Social Network and The Usual Suspects, with a set of proceedings intercut with action. It works for a film where the action, a mere 208 seconds, is quick and exciting but has a known ending. The film breaks it down into pieces, and includes two landings, both of which contribute and are exciting in their own right. A number of minor, side stories are told (spoiler alert), including one where a transportation professional assumed that a water landing meant a horrible crash, and later finds out that everyone made it through. There are other stories, too, and they add layers to the narrative and help round out the experience for us emotionally.
Unfortunately, there are two downsides to the script. One is that the investigations that follow this kind of airplane failure are normal, with questions needing to be asked. It’s obvious that this is where the filmmakers wanted to place the central conflict, as the flight’s ending wasn’t in question. But some good guys come off as the bad guys, and in spite of the film’s weak protests (along with Sully’s) that these folks have to ask these questions, the conflict comes off as a bit artificial. Also (spoiler alert again), the question regarding the second engine gets answered in a rather deus ex machina matter right at the end, and the film goes Disney on us when it most needed to get real.
But the greatest strength is the story. Like the recent The Finest Hours, there is a great story here. Unlike that film, this one gets it right. It’s sad that the great story behind The Finest Hours will probably never get the cinematic treatment it deserves because a big-budget second-rate film was made of it. Fortunately for Sullenberger, Skiles and everyone else onboard Flight 1549, Sully is worth a viewing, and perhaps more than one.