‘Sully’ a heroic tale tailor-made for the Eastwood treatment
If you followed the Miracle on the Hudson from the glow a TV screen, the closest thing to a bad guy was the flock of birds.
Americans, and especially New Yorkers, desperately needed an aviation hero as a psychological bookend to the Sept. 11 attacks. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, actually living in Danville, was a plainspoken, rulebook-following everyman, seemingly sent from the heavens to give us all a day filled with hope and grace and happy Gotham tabloid headlines.
Clint Eastwood gives us that story plus a few villains, portraying Sullenberger as a man who is fighting a battle with media and government bureaucrats even as he’s appearing with David Letterman and being hugged by strangers on the streets. The Sully-as-victim narrative borders on excessive, before Eastwood lands his cinematic vessel without any serious harm done.
Sullenberger, for those who missed it, was the pilot of a U.S. Airways jet that took off from New York in 2009, and was incapacitated by bird strikes to both engines. Seemingly with no other choice, the 42-year veteran pilot executed a water landing on the Hudson River, with no one aboard killed or critically injured.
As he continues to direct into his mid-80s, Eastwood seems attracted to characters like Sullenberger, who make mistakes or are perceived as flawed, only to stay the noble course and reveal that their persecutors are the ones with the problem. Protagonists such as “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and “Gran Torino” oldster Walt Kowalski represent bedrock values that Eastwood clearly supports and would perhaps like to see more of in the the world.
The director benefits from the era’s bedrock actor in Tom Hanks, who captures the quirks and habits of Sullenberger, while maintaining just enough Hanks-ness to please the moviegoing masses. This is the actor’s gift. His success depends on amplifying the positive traits in a character while still remaining believable. There are reasons why Hanks will never play Roger Ailes on screen, but he needs to be in production right now on a biopic for Jimmy Carter.
Eastwood gooses the plot by turning the media and National Transportation Safety Board into foils, including a bizarre TV interview dream sequence that has real-life Katie Couric asking, “Sully Sullenberger, are you a hero or a fraud?” Sully’s wife Lorraine is played by Laura Linney, the latest in a series of great actresses who must spend an entire movie looking stressed out with a phone attached to her ear. (“I’m thinking of running over the press with a car.”)
Meanwhile, the NTSB officials all speak as if they’re wishing they had a mustache to twirl, as they try to trap Sully in a technicality like he’s Al Capone, and not the most beloved civilian aviator of the 21st century. (The group includes Anna Gunn, who looks even more dour and depressed than when she had Walter White from “Breaking Bad” as a husband.) Two unnecessary and abrupt flashback scenes add almost nothing to the greater equation.
And yet the center of the movie remains focused, with both the good and bad filmmaking decisions orbiting the solid and unbreakable core of Sully’s dignity. Watching Sully slosh through the freezing water filling the plane, double and triple checking to make sure no one is left behind, is a reminder that duty extends far beyond the military.
Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Kormarnicki seem to mock how the media fawn over the pilot, then make a pretty convincing argument that Sullenberger was even more heroic than he was portrayed in the accident’s aftermath.
Speaking of exit-row duties, the Hudson scenes are visually fantastic, played out at least four times on film if you include dreams and NTSB flight recorder playbacks. These scenes have the detail of good long-form journalism. To watch “Sully,” is to listen to every flight attendant safety-card presentation for the rest of your airline-passenger days.
In the end, “Sully” is a broadly crowd-pleasing movie at a time when we could use the straightforward entertainment. If you have to spend 96 minutes in a theater with your apathetic 13-year-old son, your Donald Trump supporting father-in-law and your great aunt, who hasn’t liked a movie since “The Bridges of Madison County,” this is definitely the pick.
Running time: 96 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13 (profanity)