Review: “Sully”

3 out of 5 stars.

The “Miracle on the Hudson,” the 2009 emergency landing of a plane in the Hudson River by commercial airline pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger that resulted in no fatalities or serious injuries, remains one of the most fantastic stories in recent American history. Maybe it’s because it is the rare potentially catastrophic event that ended happily that it has stuck so hard in the hearts and minds of the American people. Maybe it’s because everyone loves a hero, and Sully is the real deal.

Despite all of that, the Miracle on the Hudson is actually terrible material for a movie.

Clint Eastwood directs and Tom Hanks stars in “Sully,” which begins directly after that fateful landing. We watch as Sully is whisked between interviews with the likes of Katie Couric and hearings with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), all the while combating PTSD as he constantly imagines the airplane crashing. Flashbacks scattered throughout the film take us back through the events leading up to the incident, the crash itself, and its aftermath, as the passengers evacuate the plane. Despite everyone hailing him as a hero, and despite his actions saving the lives of everyone on board, the NTSB runs computer simulation after simulation and believe that Sully could actually have successfully made an emergency landing at a nearby airport without risking everyone’s life by landing in the Hudson.

The problem with “Sully” is that that is the main conflict. It leads to an interesting personal dilemma for Sully, which Hanks portrays brilliantly as always, as he battles with whether or not he did the right thing. But we all know that he did; regardless of what could have been, he still saved the lives of everyone on board. And Sully is such a good guy on top of that that there’s not a whole lot of conflict to be wrung out of there either. His primary shortcoming seems to be that he doesn’t call his wife (played by an under-utilized Laura Linney) enough; some sort of domestic issue is implied but never becomes apparent. Compare that with the 2012 movie “Flight,” a fictional film in which Denzel Washington similarly plays a pilot who miraculously crash lands his plane and saves everyone on board, but who struggles with alcoholism. There’s nothing like that to be found here. Sully, and even his copilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are just too good to be interesting.

And they are the most fully realized characters in the film. We’re introduced to a few of the passengers on the plane but they don’t really go anywhere, resulting in what feels like a misguided attempt at an “Airport” style disaster movie. We don’t get to know Lorraine Sullenberger (Linney) all that well, or the people who serve on the advisory board, who include Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (an under-utilized Anna Gunn).

Eastwood does skillfully direct the film, and he does the best job possible with what is actually rather thin material. There are a couple different flashbacks to the crash, and while each time it is told from a different perspective it gets tiresome by the end. But it is still engrossing to watch, even knowing that everything turns out okay, and he weaves the flashbacks in at just the right moments.

Sully’s PTSD is something that perhaps could have been concentrated on even more, instead of spending time on characters we’re not going to care about anyway and an event we already know all the details of. An even more fully realized portrait of the man could have emerged from that. There is some interesting discussion toward the end on human error versus the perfection of machines, but it can’t redeem the cringe-worthy closing, in which the NTSB finally realizes they were wrong and have a good laugh with Sully and Skiles. Despite its subject matter, Hanks’ solid performance, and Eastwood at the helm, “Sully” just never quite gets off the ground.

Runtime: 96 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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