I feel like I should start this review by saying that I have enormous respect for Clint Eastwood. The man is a Hollywood legend, and the fact that he is still working on such a large scale at the age of 86 is amazing. It has been an up-and-down ride for the last several years, but after the record-smashing box office and award success of American Sniper, there's no question that Eastwood is working at the top of his game. When it was first reported that the iconic director would be teaming up with superstar actor Tom Hanks for a biopic of hero pilot Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the idea was tantalizing. Eastwood excels with character work and raw tension, and while I had a few reservations, the film looked like a can't-miss project. Sadly, Sully ends up falling short in a multitude of areas, which is hugely disappointing considering the pedigree of the talent involved.
Some may argue that there was never a real cinematic story in the tale of Captain Sullenberger, but I disagree. The "Miracle on the Hudson" was one of the most inspiring stories of the last decade, and "Sully" Sullenberger became one of the iconic heroes of modern history. There's plenty of material here for a compelling movie, but the trouble is that Eastwood never finds it. Sully is dull and sluggish in all the wrong places, lacking any of the tension or dramatic momentum needed to tell such an incredibly powerful story. Sure, Hanks is brilliant as usual, giving subtle depth and humanity to a caring hero. But even his stellar performance can only carry the movie so far, as Sully eventually gets bogged down by some truly baffling choices and a sense of repetitive redundancy. Hanks and the inspirational true story may be great, but the movie is far from it.
The film starts its story after the crash, as the famed airline pilot (Hanks) is dealing with nightmares about the emergency landing that could have gone much, much worse. Sully has become an overnight sensation around the world, and it's a complex issue for such a humble, understated guy to grapple with. At the same time, Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) are stuck in the midst of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), with the board insisting that they did the wrong thing by landing the jumbo jet in the Hudson River. Eastwood then switches back to tell the story of the crash, giving us a glimpse into the fateful minutes aboard US Airways Flight 1549. With a whirlwind of media coverage, the sinking fear that he may have made the wrong choice, and some serious post traumatic stress, Sully will have to power through and prove that he's indeed the hero that the American public believes him to be.
Writing that synopsis was really difficult. I'm not just saying this to be mean to the movie or anything, because believe me, I truly wanted to like this film. I remember the story of "The Miracle on the Hudson" vividly, and as someone who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, the crash has become a small part of our city history (the plane was heading to Charlotte from LaGuardia- numerous references to the city drew laughs at my preview screening). But even with such a remarkable true story, Eastwood never gives you a reason to be invested in what's going on at all. The structure is bizarre and ineffective (this has drawn praise from many critics and I seriously cannot comprehend why), the character work is too slight to ever register, and ultimately, the movie is so focused on the crash sequence that it plays the damn thing twice. This movie can be immensely frustrating sometimes.
Hanks is obviously the best thing about Sully, and it's not even a close call. He'll probably be nominated for Best Actor this year at the Oscars, which means he'll fill the obligatory slot of "Great Performance in a Bad Movie." Hanks is an actor who can deliver an exceptional performance under almost any circumstance, and he injects a kindness into Captain Sullenberger that is invaluable to the success of the character. "Be sure to take a blanket, it'll be cold out there," says Hanks' Sully as he trudges his way through the inside of a water-logged plane, ensuring that each passenger is comfortable during the entirety of this disaster. Those moments of human goodness are the things that stick out, and when Eastwood captures that spirit, it's great. Unfortunately, those graceful sequences are few and far between in a bland film that never clicks.
The crash sequence is the centerpiece of the film, and I figured that even if the rest of Sully didn't work, we would get an amazing, thrilling recreation of the famed Hudson landing. While Eastwood seems to get many of the small details right in terms of just what happened during the crash, the scene is so dramatically inert that I seriously doubt if anyone will be excited, frightened, or harrowed by what they're seeing on screen. Look, I didn't need Eastwood to punch it up with overly melodramatic action movie music, but the truth is that he just didn't do enough to create an engaging cinematic recreation of this event. The scene happens right around the midway point of the movie, and when it was over, I found myself saying "Wait, that's it?"
But hold on, it gets even better. Just as Sully is nearing its conclusion, the crash scene is repeated again. To clarify, the final act of the movie centers around the NTSB hearing which was meant to settle the facts of the case once and for all. After watching airplane simulations of other pilots trying to make a return to LaGuardia (another strange, bizarre decision), the NTSB officer in charge (Mike O'Malley) orders for the cockpit recording of the incident to be played in front of everyone in the room. This prompts the movie to go through the crash sequence again, and not just part of it, but literally the entire thing from start to finish. If Eastwood had held off on showing us the crash until this part of the film, that may have actually been an interesting choice. But there was absolutely no reason for us to watch the scene again, and it just feels like the movie is killing time (it's an incredibly short 96 minutes) before wrapping things up.
Throughout the whole film, I found myself admiring what Eastwood was going for while simultaneously recognizing the huge flaws in its execution. With Sully, he's trying to give us a portrait of a quiet, unassuming hero, and the movie tries to convey that generous humility at every turn. But as a piece of cinema, it just never even comes close to working. Eastwood gets caught in the crossfire between what he's aiming for and traditional biopic conventions (some of the human interest subplots in this movie are cringeworthy), and it feels like an awkward balance at times. But most importantly, there's barely an arc to the story, and there doesn't seem to be much of a point beyond the honoring of an American hero. The modesty of the whole production ends up feeling quite dull, and as warmly inviting as the story is, it's tough to ever be really engaged by the film.
Sully is led by a charming enough performance from Tom Hanks, but there's just not enough here to warrant a trip to the theater. Eastwood seems to have the right idea for the story of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, and yet he doesn't get the job done, leaving us with a film that will likely make you question why you're watching it at every turn. A few interesting ideas float around but they're overwhelmed by some seriously bland storytelling, and when Eastwood runs out of things to say, the movie just kinda ends. I wanted to love this film, but instead, I'm gonna have to chalk it up as the first big disappointment of the fall movie season. When even a dramatization of one of the most famous events of the 21st century manages to come across as tedious and uninteresting, you know you've got a problem on your hands.
THE FINAL GRADE: C- (5/10)
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