With the credits rolling on a particularly abysmal summer movie season and the fall firmly upon us, it’s time to swap out the noisy, CGI-fueled spectacle for some good, old-fashioned true story dramas. Movies built to capitalize on contemporary world events have become more and more fashionable over the last decade, with the time between the actual event and inevitable big-screen reenactment becoming shorter and shorter. The big question facing several of these upcoming “recent event” films such as Deepwater Horizon (about the 2010 oil rig disaster), Snowden (2013’s NSA hack) and Patriots Day (the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing), will be whether or not they can possibly come off as any less of a cash grab than the horde of unnecessary blockbuster sequels and remakes that theatergoers have endured over the past four months.
The first true story up to bat is director Clint Eastwood’s Sully, which recounts 2009’s miraculous water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. The daring maneuver, which saved all 155 people on board, was performed by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (portrayed by Tom Hanks) alongside First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, sporting the year’s best mustache), and took just over 200 seconds from the time both engines were hit by a flock of birds to the commercial airliner’s impact with the frigid New York City waters below. Cynics are bound to ask whether it’s wise or even possible to build a satisfying story around a mere 200 seconds worth of drama. Eastwood demonstrates that it is indeed possible (jury’s still out on whether it was wise), though he doesn’t quite exhibit the same level of precision as a proverbial cinematic Sullenberger.
The key is that Sully unexpectedly places the focus not on that innately exciting disaster scenario – which most people are already familiar with – but rather on the National Transportation Safety Board investigation that followed. The NTSB argued that Sully could have safely landed his plane at any number of nearby airports and thereby endangered the lives of everyone onboard; Sully firmly believes that any move other than the one he made would have ended in certain tragedy. To be sure, these back and forth arguments over safety regulations and computer simulations are not the most exhilarating thing you’ll see all year. The NTSB investigator in charge is practically an inquisitor, nearly mustache-twirling in his inexplicable desire to debunk Sully’s supposed heroism. Yet in a classical Hawksian way, it’s admirable how engaging the film’s exchanges of succinct, effective dialogue can be when ping-ponged back and forth by talented, well cast actors.
Sullenberger is only the second best regular-Joe Captain that Tom Hanks has portrayed this decade, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t put in admirable work. His performance will likely be leveled with accusations of blandness, and such complaints would be valid if not for the fact that it’s exactly the soft-spoken, everyman quality the real Sully exudes that allowed the pilot to arise as a template of 21st century American heroism in the first place. Eastwood, as the former ‘Man with No Name’, certainly understands the benefits of blank slate characters, not as an excuse for underdeveloped characterization but as a vessel for the audience to step into. Hanks accomplishes this with elegance, but also manages to imbue the role with his typical nuances, often so understated as to be almost imperceptible. Only in choice scenes, such as when he checks every row of his sinking aircraft for stragglers, his eyes flitting around with genuine worry, does one realize that this humanity was there from scene one, just buried under the intense focus that comes naturally with four decades of experience and responsibility. That’s not bravura acting; it’s dissolving into a role, and Hanks does a reliably good job of it.
The flight itself, which is shown a few times from varying perspectives, lacks the pure white-knuckle intensity of Captain Phillips or the similarly airborne United 93, but nonetheless wrings out a surprising amount of suspense considering everyone knows tragedy isn’t in the cards. The special effects utilized in these sequences are hit or miss, though nothing is as glaringly fake as the infamous plastic baby from Eastwood’s last film. The action’s not spectacular, but it goes off without a hitch. More problematic are the lazily implemented glimpses of Flight 1549’s passengers. Eastwood focuses on three gentlemen who consider themselves so lucky to have nabbed tickets at the last minute, and later devotes a few precious moments to make sure audiences understand there’s a baby onboard (a real one this time). This is all horridly manipulative and exposes the lazy attempt to pad out such a slight story’s run time, which continues with equally pointless conversations with Sully’s wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and a couple of bewilderingly unnecessary flashbacks to his youth.
To return to the big question posed at the top, does Eastwood justify the existence of this particular adaptation? Is there something of substance that Sully has to offer beyond showing people the step-by-step of what happened, or is it all just an excuse to make money off of an exciting, inspirational thing that actually happened? Ultimately it appears to be the latter, as the film fails to provide a clear message about, well, anything. It never says anything coherent or fresh about heroism. Sully is portrayed as morally flawless, while his enemies are clearly in the wrong from beginning to end. It doesn’t make a statement on how the media feeds on inspirational hero stories such as this, with one bafflingly stilted bar scene that sums up the film’s empty attempts to broach Sully’s celebrity status. Perhaps the most noteworthy takeaway is that inspirational stories like Sully’s can act as a temporary antidote for New York’s chronic post-9/11, post-recession hopelessness. Like last year’s The Walk, the September 11th attacks are evoked and inverted in intriguing (if heavy-handed) ways, but Sully never follows through on this thread, and ends on a particularly empty note.
As the real Captain Sullenberger made very clear following Flight 1459’s landing, he was just doing his job, something screenwriter Todd Komarnicki highlights throughout his script. This is a well-worn sentiment of humble men and women who manage to pull off extraordinary feats, but it’s also one that permeates Eastwood’s modest, workmanlike approach to the material. Eastwood is ‘just doing his job’ as well, and he lands his film in theaters with no harm done and an earnest crowd-pleaser in tow. Not a single aspect of the movie could be labeled ‘extraordinary’, but in a world where these types of biographical dramas so often exploit and twist current events for the sake of Oscar-baiting and built-in box office returns, a movie that strives for and executes on ‘solid’ can be a refreshing notion. Like the events of January 15th, 2009, not often looked back upon but remembered fondly, Sully is fleeting cinematic comfort food at its most basic and unpretentious.
Score: 3 out of 5