[Note: This is a repost of our review from the Telluride Film Festival; ‘Sully’ is in theaters this Friday]
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, in less than 210 seconds, made a decision to avoid turning back into a New York City airport after both engines lost their thrust and landed in the Hudson River, saving every human on board (and potentially sparing even more on the mainland). He is a hero. Clint Eastwood has such a storied history as both an actor and a director, he is a legend. But real life heroism and cultural legacy aside, Eastwood’s quasi-biopic/loose essay about heroism, Sully, is at best a middle ground portrait of an American hero without any deep insight. At its worst, it’s an unsalvageable mess.
The most positive attributes that Sully has is Tom Hanks as Sullenberger and a few eerie scenes from a civilian’s standpoint that makes his Hudson River maneuver look like another potential 9/11 in the same city, only eight years removed. Hanks’ Sullenger is concerned for passengers first and foremost, and he is willing to accept any paper-pushing tribunal guilt that is thrown his way because he does not harbor any civilian deaths on his conscience. Those meager seconds that he took to plan a water landing were heroic, but in this film those seconds don’t possess any tension.
The narrative messiness is introduced when we meet Sullenberger in the throws of a nightmare that is inexplicably cut within a fade to black title sequence (this plane crash was brought to you by Warner Brothers!). His nightmare is crashing a plane in the middle of Manhattan. This nightmare happens in a hotel, after his heroism has made him the most celebrated man in New York City. There are two similar nightmares in the film and the second one doesn’t add anything, just a reminder of what his initial fear of returning to the airport was—that they wouldn’t make it. It’s the first of many instances where Eastwood uses repetition not for character penetration, but for filling out screen time.
The messiness continues with two flashbacks to Sullenberger’s youthful pilot days that only show his love for flight and calmness in crisis, but they don’t add anything to him as a person. Sullenberger, the man, is simply shown through the lens of people seeing him as a hero and we don’t gain any extra insight, which is made even more glaring by including runtime-padding flashbacks of ill construction.
There are messages that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are attempting to convey in Sully and both are worthy messages that are under-defined in a film that already has a scant running time of 96 minutes (with credits). The first is that New York City needed some good news at the exact moment that plane landed. The second was that every person who helped return people to safety—during a very small window of time when hypothermia in a January New York river was a very real possibility—were equal heroes. Both of these messaging attempts are said directly to the screen by either a newscaster or the working man that Eastwood spends no time humanizing; he just presents them in the mode of hero worship.
The water landing happened in January 2009, and Eastwood wants you to know that Manhattan needed some good news. People say this frequently throughout the film, whenever a working class driver or barkeep encounters Sullenberger, but it’s never acknowledged why. In January 2009, America was in a deep recession created by a housing collapse made possible by New York’s corporate banks and stock market. Eastwood wants to remind its audience that times were tough in New York City, repeatedly, at the same time of this front page heroism, but he removes the agency from any working class person to utter why people reacted so strongly to a safe landing at a time when our country was crashing. It’s the same corporate greed that’s attempting to sully Sully’s reputation by recreating computer simulations to disprove his heroism. But the government officials who were here are portrayed as hand-wringing numbskulls who can’t let heroes remain heroes, weren’t out to get Sully as the film portrayed.
Eastwood’s lack of stating the state of the world in 2009 (sometimes you just need a hero!) combined with the portrayal of the government railroading Sully, opens up Sully to be a not-so subtle conservative puff piece. That or Eastwood’s just trying to puff up the runtime. But he does it with an unnecessary and a potentially dangerous promotion of government distrust in a scenario of great exaggeration.
More narratively problematic is how distant we remain from Captain Sullenberger outside of news reports and reassurance from his co-pilot and wife (a totally wasted Laura Linney, who only acts with a phone in hand). Each only call out his bravery and don’t engage at any deeper level. Sully’s stance that we have too many systems whose interest is to discredit heroes whose heroism come at the expense of a big insurance payment is valid. And so is the idea that it took many professional individuals acting at their most professional levels to save everyone from Sullenberger’s decision. But introducing a few passengers by their desire to golf or buy snow globes isn’t going to help bond us to the passengers and declare them heroes, nor is one line about New York Mets baseball going to make us any closer to the Coast Guard responders.
Sully wants us to see many heroes in this event and that federal agencies don’t know anything about split second life or death decisions but Eastwood only directly tells us of their heroism and we don’t actually learn anything about anyone. Including Sully. As a simple something to make you feel good that heroes still exist, Sully might work. But in terms of filmmaking, it’s generally lazy and sometimes it’s even abysmal (though Hanks never is). The characters are impenetrable. The messages are directly stated. The music sounds like a Kleenex ad. The construction is clunky and turbulent.
Ultimately, Sully just feels like an exercise in reminding us that we should still be in awe of heroes and not ask questions. And that’s a little dangerous, especially since Eastwood ignores many of the societal fractured states of January 2009. There’s a nice moment of vindication in the hearing, sure, but despite that the whole movie just feels like it’s trying to get to a respectable feature run time when an “I’m proud of all of you!” note from Eastwood would’ve gone just as far as he goes here.
Sully will be released in theaters on September 9