The first thing you might think when you hear there’s a film called Sully, based on Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s aborted January 15, 2009 flight, is, “A whole movie? Wasn’t it a short trip?” Indeed, it was: 208 seconds from liftoff to touchdown on the Hudson River. Even with the struggle to get passengers onto the wings and into Coast Guard ships, it’s the stuff of a featurette. And where’s the conflict? Sully was instantly celebrated. He was the one person about whom everyone on the planet could agree. Right?
As Johnny Carson would say, “Not so fast, camel breath.” Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have manufactured a crisis out of a minor footnote. They’ve turned Sully’s heroic feat into a story of government persecution.
Sully begins the morning after the event with Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) having a nightmare in which he crashes the plane. He has another one in which he’s ripped into by Katie Couric. (Which is the scarier prospect? You decide.) But his real nightmare is about to begin. The NTSB — the National Transportation Safety Board — is out to prove he could have landed the plane safely at either LaGuardia or nearby Teterboro airport. On the phone with his wife (Laura Linney), he worries about losing his job, his profession, and his reputation. She adds they could also lose their house. Yes, the film even raises the prospect of foreclosure for his heroism!
The principal agent of the NTSB is played by Mike O’Malley, who tilts his bald head towards Sully and wears a perpetual sneer. His sidekick (Anna Gunn, from Breaking Bad) casts the occasional sympathetic glance Sully’s way but is mostly just sad at the prospect of having to take him down. The NTSB devises computer simulations in which pilots in virtual cockpits work with the same set of variables as Sullenberger on that day. And those simulations don’t look good.
In life, Sullenberger apparently was annoyed by the simulations. And why shouldn’t he have been? He’d made an unprecedented landing and saved all 155 “souls” on board. Why would the NTSB second-guess him? But from the way Sully portrays the agency, you’d think it was the IRS instead of a group of people who travel all over the world analyzing some of the most dreadful events imaginable and laboring to pass on what they learn to the government, the industry, and pilots. No one mentions that if the NTSB hadn’t held hearings it would have been derelict. Is the movie’s clunky melodrama a means of filling 90 minutes — or another way for Eastwood, an avowed libertarian, to peddle an Ayn Rand–ish scenario of an extraordinary individual targeted by government bureaucrats for … well, being extraordinary. It’s probably both things: opportunism plus politics.
That’s a shame, because one third of Sully is really good. As a young man, Eastwood was a passenger in a plane that crash-landed in water, and he knows how to evoke the feeling of the ground coming up fast. He shoots those 208 seconds with a master’s simplicity. We see the pain on Sully’s face as he says the words no pilot ever wants to say: “Brace for impact.” The final moments, in which the flight attendants — clearly terrified themselves —chant, “Head down, stay down, head down, stay down” with superhuman discipline are chilling.
It’s odd that Eastwood left out one of the most noteworthy aspects of the landing. The only serious injury was to a flight attendant, and it wasn’t from the crash but from a male passenger who clobbered her in the course of trying to escape from the plane. Sully is meant as a testament to an extraordinary individual — but also to individuals who rise to the level of the extraordinary. Eastwood is very generous to anyone who isn’t in the government or media.
How’s Hanks? Excellent. With his white hair and mustache and thin frame, he looks like the man. More important, he has the ability to suggest he’s thinking onscreen. You watch Hanks’s face as Sully figures the options — looking left over Manhattan and right over the Palisades — and his demeanor comes across as a state of grace. Hanks and those scenes in the cockpit make the movie worth seeing, in spite of the dumb melodramatics. But only just.
One more thing: All of Laura Linney’s scenes are on the phone, which is bizarre if you caught the hilarious Oscar telecast parody on last season’s Inside Amy Schumer in which every (fictional) scene excerpted for Best Actress shows an actress pleading on the phone with a male co-star. Did Linney make Sully before or after she shot that bit? If before, what does it say that she took this role? If after, Ouch.