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Sully Review: A Sometimes Thrilling Movie That Never Takes Flight

By  · Published on September 5th, 2016

Movie Review

Sully Offers a Thrilling Ride But Crashes In the End

The depiction of the heroic flight is great, the rest not so much.

If you wonder how they made a feature-length film out of an incident that lasted only six minutes, the US Airways Flight 1549 water landing in the Hudson River in 2009 actually plays out a number of times over the course of Sully. More if you count the nightmares had by the famed pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), where the plane isn’t maneuvered as heroically and crashes into Manhattan skyscrapers, killing everyone on board. We experience the events in full from the cockpit perspective, and in full from the passengers’ perspective, and in full from the traffic controller’s perspective, and from the Coast Guard’s perspective… We could also include the manned computer simulations showing different digitized outcomes for the flight in various potential alternative solutions.

There’s not much to the movie other than that. The story consists only of the flight, the immediate investigation and hearing into whether Sullenberger was at fault for putting an Airbus in the water – never mind him saving all 155 people on board; he should have saved all the people and the plane – and very minimal back story. Sully isn’t a biopic. Based on Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” (co-written by Jeffrey Zaslow), the movie takes a nonlinear approach, bouncing all around but centered on the aftermath for its present setting as the supposed hero of the “Miracle on the Hudson” wonders why he’s being doubted by his industry as well as why he’s being celebrated through bar specials and talk show appearances for “just doing his job.” Doing his job very well, but still.

Sullenberger humbly wants equal credit given to his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), and the rest of his crew, the passengers, the rescue workers. Maybe even to his wife, Lorrie (Laura Linney), who has to deal with the media back home while receiving the occasional call from him with updates. Why the movie is then named after him and primarily focused on him is questionable provided its supposed point. But it seems director Clint Eastwood is in fact out to showcase Sullenberger as a real American hero at a time when we needed one most (and maybe still do). One person tells Sullenberger he’s a big deal because New York hasn’t had a lot of good news in a while – especially involving a plane. That’s surprisingly the only thing close to a reference to 9/11, aside from the explosions in bad dreams that certainly evoke the World Trade Center tragedy.

The more the movie concentrates on the hearing, the more lopsided it gets, as there’s not really any dramatic tension there. Ironically, it’s likely you don’t know how that hearing turns out, while you surely do know how the flight turns out, yet there’s still a lot of suspense in the latter and none in the former. Some stakes are presented regarding what will happen to Sullenberger and his family if he’s to blame and is forced to retire without pension – something about additional property he owns, a private business that will go under, financial hardship – but those stakes are never felt while he’s standing trial. They’re never brought up again, nor even for that matter is Lorrie, who deserves at least some closure at the end. One more phone call. There’s a hard and fast conclusion that never looks back to see if anyone is left behind. Some characters are.

If you don’t immediately realize the frayed threads, it’s because they’re not very strong to begin with. Another stake for Sullenberger, even if a simple one, is that he just wants to get back home to Lorrie. But you don’t feel their connection well enough where you can’t wait to see them reunited, she wanting to embrace the man she nearly lost in a plane crash. The way to make an audience care about a relationship like that is to show them together at some point, in a flashback if need be. If you only see them linked through calls – Linney only getting to play that unfortunate female role of concerned woman on phone – cross-cut and never in the same frame, it’s hard to get a sense of any chemistry or love between the two characters. If you did, you’d definitely want that scene where he finally gets home to her.

Playing yet another real-life figure, Hanks is as fine as can be expected, but he doesn’t have a whole lot to do and the performance is understated to a point of dullness. You never get a sense Hanks as Sullenberger is at the steering wheel of the story, which only makes sense during the half of the movie where the character isn’t allowed to be at the controls. Even during the flight, which is the real star of the movie, and the evacuation he seems to be on autopilot. With him something of a bore, and with Linney painful to watch with her overdone emotions, Eckhart manages to steal the show, at least for the humans, while still doing very little. If only we ever got to know anything about Skiles other than he was new to the job. Some of the passengers have more development than him, including a guy played by Sam Huntington, distractingly memorable giving too much in his brief role.

There are some interesting ideas in Sully. The issue of Sullenberger’s lack of control being one of them. Eastwood also shows us reporters on the scene of the incident focused on negatives (“They only have minutes to live,” one says about the survivors in the cold air and water of the Hudson; “Will it be too late?” another asks of the rescue operation). He also shows the other extreme where people put Sullenberger on a pedestal at the highest level. As though the only interesting stories are of godlike heroes and complete disasters. But there are some things that fall right down the middle, like this movie. It has its share of extreme highs and lows, but while it does offer some real thrills, ultimately it’s an unsuccessful flight. As a historical dramatization of Flight 1549, it’s a smash. As a movie, it crashes.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.