Sully barely builds a film out of 208 seconds

The biggest question I had going into Sully was how the hell this was a full-length movie. The actual “Miracle on the Hudson”, as we’re told several times during the film, was 208 seconds. Once that’s built out, and the aftermath moved through (which took 24 minutes, as the movie also lets us know), what’s left? We know that he did the right thing, and there was never exactly a whole lot of controversy? Is it a personal story? A story of heroic self-doubt? Or simply a feel-good tale of everyday heroism?

Sort of? I mean, I’ll grant you that those things are definitely in Sully, and I do kind of like some of the movie that could have been. But in recent years, director Clint Eastwood, accompanied this time by screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, has developed a nasty habit of pulling the least interesting part of any true story, or at least the one that seems most befitting of his increasingly crotchety outlook on things.

So, at its core, Sully remains the story we know. On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 departed from LaGuardia and almost immediately hit a flock of geese which disabled both engines in the plane at an extremely low altitude. Under the guidance of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the flight made a successful water landing in the Hudson River and lost not a single soul on board.

To fill out the film, Sully adds in an antagonistic National Transportation Safety Board that seeks to prove Sully took the wrong actions and could have safely landed the plane at an airport. And also phone calls from his wife (Laura Linney), who is actually never seen without a phone in her hand. And flashbacks to two times as a youth that he flew a plane. And repeated dream sequences that show Sully’s inner turmoil.

As it ended up existing, Sully is an earnestly paper-thin film. I get what they were going for here. There’s a thought in this film’s head that it’s all lean old-fashioned American filmmaking muscle. Cut to the bone and tell the most basic story, that’s why it’s 95 minutes long. But this is not a film of lean efficiency. There’s a lot of tissue filling this one out, a lot of repetition (the climactic sequence of the movie is essentially one we’ve already seen) and a sense that in the effort to find a more substantive story, he’s found a distraction.

At its heart, Sully is and should be a story of people doing their jobs. How everyone worked to get through and overcome tragedy. That is, until it comes time for the NTSB to do their jobs. Then they’re vicious morons who just want to keep poor Howard Roark Sully down. There’s an unnecessary Randianism to this film, an antagonism that didn’t need to be here and feels nasty in a film that doesn’t need it. It’s not compelling in the context of the film to see him overcome them as a righteous man, and it’s not compelling a short 7 years later knowing that it worked out for him. The work it ultimately does against the thematics doesn’t help either, and I’m left wanting to cut out the only sense of conflict this film has.

But maybe Sully never needed a conflict. Maybe right now, we needed a film about Americans being good and being good to each other, and that’s all. But that didn’t need to be this full-length movie, running over its own ends again and again and repeating itself like a student stalling for wordcount in an essay he forgot to write.

That’s where I keep getting hung up on this one. What needed to be told cinematically about this story, at least as it now exists? Eastwood’s workman style is certainly more competent here than in American Sniper, minus one of the most awkward archival splicings I’ve seen in some time, but it’s simply competent, getting the job done. The same way he’s felt for me since at least Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima, the last time I felt the presence of a vital or interesting filmmaker. There’s a TV movie feel, something gray and cloudy to leave on in the background on a Saturday afternoon, and to mention offhand later.

Is it Tom Hanks’ performance alone? I mean, Hanks giving a strong performance is no surprise. The sky is blue, the sun will rise again, and we’re fortunate enough to live in the small miracle time that is the Hollywood career of Tom Hanks. He’s empathetic, nuanced, and laden with moral authority. It’s not surprising, but Hanks is fantastic in the role, as he has been every other damn time he’s in a movie. It’s not enough to justify Sully.

I earnestly do want to like this. My feelings on Tom Hanks clear enough, I want a story right now about good old-fashioned heroism. But there’s not enough of that here, and maybe there never could have been. As a TV special, or a documentary recreation, perhaps Sully could have been something wonderful. But I mostly just found myself yearning for something more, and disappointed in the brief glimpses I got of that.

Grade: C-

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2 thoughts on “Sully barely builds a film out of 208 seconds”

  1. Just saw it. Liked it a lot. Maybe because I’m a pilot. The event captured simple truths and the movie captured the event. More than enough for me. Every film doesn’t need to be Ben Hur.

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