There’s no question that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is a hero. In less than five minutes after his plane’s engines were taken out, Sully managed to land his plane on the Hudson River safely, ensuring that the 150 passengers on board all survived. To say this type of water landing was unprecedented is an understatement. It’s a miracle, and while others also deserve credit for getting the passengers off of the plane and onto shore, none of it would be possible without Sully’s quick thinking.
So it’s a great story. But does it make for a great film? No.
That’s not to say there aren’t solid elements to the film. With Tom Hanks playing Sully, there’s a commanding performance at the center of the film, but Hanks manages to bring a quiet resolve to Sully, who’s still clearly shaken by the events that, in the film, only happened days earlier. He’s surrounded by a capable cast, including Aaron Eckhart as his co-pilot, and the film looks solid – a result of it being crafted for IMAX screens.
But we’re talking about an event that lasted less than five minutes, with very little drama outside of the actual incident. Crafting a full-length feature narrative around this incident is unquestionably a challenge. The ways the film works around this problem, though, are frustrating. For starters, the film runs through the crash itself twice, in real time. That’s not necessarily a problem, but the film also repeatedly goes through a nightmare scenario for Sully, including with the opening scene. Showing this once or twice could be effective, but the film returns to it frequently in lieu of telling a story.
There’s also the film’s invention of a villain. In the actual story, the closest thing to a villainous force (and it’s really stretching it) would be the bird formation that caused the plane to crash in the first place. That doesn’t necessarily make for great drama, so the film uses the members of the NTSB – a board that exists to examine plane crashes to help prevent future crashes – into the bad guys. The board members are accusatory, and fail to take into account anything remotely human in simulating the crash. It’s fictitious – enough so that the names of the board members are changed for this film. Why make the change? The easy assumption, aside from trying to create drama, is that director Clint Eastwood wanted to portray regulation and government bureaucracy as villains, which would seem to align with his own political interests. Knowing the reality of the situation, though, it’s weak at best, and malicious at its core.
Sully wants to be a great picture, but it lacks the material to create a fully-formed narrative. In spite of the hook of the main event and a tremendously talented performance from Tom Hanks, this film isn’t a worthy tribute to its namesake.