There’s a great performance at the center of Sully, Clint Eastwood’s film about Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who miraculously landed a US Airways jet loaded with 155 passengers and crew in the middle of the Hudson River on a frigid January day seven years ago and did not lose a single soul in the process. That performance is, of course, by Tom Hanks as Sully, a white-haired reserve of composure and practicality who almost never loses his cool even when he’s attempting an unprecedented water landing. Underneath that calm exterior, however, Sully is roiled by self-doubt after the incident: could he have done it differently? Could he have made it to one of the nearby airports as instructed?
He’s also plagued by nightmares in which he doesn’t make it and the plane plows into skyscrapers along the Manhattan skyline, an unsettling image which Eastwood deploys over and over again. The idea is that New York found a kind of healing in Sully’s achievement, some eight years after 9/11, with a character saying at one point, “It’s been a while since New York had news this good — especially with an airplane in it.” It’s a message that’s especially moving during the film’s single best segment after the landing itself — an extended sequence in which New York workers from a ferry captain to first responders make their way into the icy waters of the Hudson and rescue the passengers as the plane slowly disappears below the surface.
It’s these scenes — real New York heroes doing their jobs in the best way they can, with competence, focus and a matter-of-fact efficiency — that make up the best part of Sully, along with the landing itself. Sully’s feat is staged with clarity and tension, yet also with a strange calm — again driving home the idea that the best heroes are just people doing their jobs. The dialogue between Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (an excellent and welcome return for Aaron Eckhart) as they face the unimaginable is almost eerily casual, its low-key nature emphasized by the lack of music in the scene. Hanks keeps it all on his face and in his eyes, his demeanor only coming close to cracking a little when he finally turns to Skiles and asks, “Got any other ideas?”
These sequences, along with Hanks’ and Eckhart’s performances throughout, come close to making Sully something greater than the sum of its parts. But it’s those other parts that make the movie’s own landing less than smooth. The spine of the film concerns the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the incident and their initial conclusion that Sully may have acted rashly in ditching the plane in the drink. Although Eastwood shows us it takes a village to rescue 155 people from a plane crash, he can’t help but portray a government regulatory board as a clichéd group of villains, intent on dishonoring the lone individual who was right no matter what. Would the director and noted libertarian/conservative rather see the NTSB just give Sully a pass, or better yet, dismantled completely? They have a job to do too — but not in Eastwood-land, where the government can never be right or at least concerned.
The scenes with the NTSB, Sully’s nightmares and his phone calls with his worried wife back home (Laura Linney) are repetitious, hinting at a thin script outside of the central incident. Sully’s own uncomfortableness with his sudden fame, coupled with the self-doubt that racks him afterwards, are a solid foundation for what could be — and intermittently is — a character study of an average man who suddenly becomes a national hero, but Eastwood keeps cutting away from it in favor of the false melodramatics of the NTSB hearings or a couple of pointless flashbacks to Sully’s youth. We even see the landing itself twice. At its worst, Sully feels like a movie that was being made up as it went in order to make it to feature length (the film runs just 96 minutes but feels a little longer).
At its best, however, Sully does keep one riveted with either Hanks’ performance or those scenes of the landing and its aftermath. Those are Eastwood on his game: lean, economical filmmaking that moves the story along with clarity and simple, understated emotion. But a chunk of Sully also has the flabbiness of recent Eastwood efforts like American Sniper, making the movie feel formless at times. I’m also getting tired of biopics (for this is a semi-biopic) that show us footage of the real person during the end credits, a cliché that often takes one out of the movie and can even undercut the star’s performance (in this case we see the real Sully leading a reunion of the actual passengers in a scene that is overwhelmingly cloying, a switch from the rest of the film).
Even with its mistakes, Sully is watchable and occasionally gripping entertainment. See it for Hanks and Eckhart and the scenes of the landing and the rescue — competent, professional filmmaking about competent, professional people doing their jobs.
Sully is in theaters Friday (September 9).