These are divisive times, and so it should come as no surprise that even real-American luminary Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's hero-status is up for debate. Captain Sully, you may recall, was the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 back in January of 2009, who was able to successfully land his commercial airline on the calm waters of the Hudson River after losing both engines to a flock of birds. Miraculously, all 155 passengers and crew lived to tell of Captain Sully's bravery and quick-thinking. But in Clint Eastwood's film, "Sully" (opening today, Sept 9), we learn that there was way more to the story than just what happened in the sky above New York City, and it asks the question: Was Sully really a hero?
Regardless of the answer, we know that Tom Hanks definitely is one. Hanks steps into the role of Captain Sully and within a few seconds on screen is totally absorbed into the role. Aaron Eckhart plays his co-pilot on that harrowing day, Jeff Skiles. We learn in the opening scenes that while the nation celebrated Sully as an undisputed champion and instant celebrity following Flight 1549, he wasn't out of hot water, so to speak. Some airline authorities and suits wanted answers. Sully, they say, could have returned to either of two nearby airports according to flight data and post-flight simulations. So deciding to land the plane in the river was not exactly a heroic feat in their eyes, but instead might have actually put the passenger in harm's way unnecessarily. Imagine the insurance claims and whatnot associated with a water landing, not to mention the loss of a multi-million dollar aircraft, if it could be proven that the plane could have returned safely on land.
It's definitely an interesting allegation for those not familiar with the behind-the-scenes details of the story, but the direction that Eastwood steers this story in can also be challenged with skepticism. The film opens with a fiery airplane crash into a stretch of Manhattan, but is only a dream sequence. From there, the actual story of Flight 1549 plays out in a series of flashbacks, and the structure just doesn't work. By the time we actually get to see the water landing (about halfway through the movie), it is a harrowing scene, but incredulously, the entire scene is shown again, later in the movie, when Sully is facing the authorities at a hearing. With a running time of just 96 minutes and getting to watch this sequence play out more than once, it seems that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki were just trying to plump up what really was a pretty thin narrative.
There are other elements that fell flat as well. Some hokey characters are introduced - like a father/son duo who rush in late to the flight - meant only to tug at our heart-strings and to personalize the trauma of the event. But it plays like a made-for-TV movie. The reasons for the investigation are not spelled out clearly enough, so it ends up coming across like there are just some bad guys looking to railroad Sully, instead of having real questions or purpose. And Laura Linney's thin performance, as Sully's worried wife who only appears on the other end of a phone throughout much of the movie, just further sinks this story.
That being said, there were some interesting themes to explore here, even if Eastwood didn't really dive into them headfirst. We live in a cynical society, and it's sad that we can't take anything at face-value, but instead have to over-analyze everybody and everything. Can't we just have our heroes? Real-life heroes are so few and far between, that when they actually show up it seems hard for us to acknowledge.
"Sully" features a great performance by Tom Hanks, but it's not enough to save the film from itself. It also champions the response-time of all of the police, fireman and water rescue units, correctly pointing out that there were more heroics on display that day than just Captain Sully's. This really was a "Miracle on the Hudson" and was an unbelievable near-disaster...unfortunately, the same can be said about the film that's based on it.
Run Time: 1 hours, 36 minutes, Rated PG-13
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn
Directed by Clint Eastwood ("American Sniper," "Jersey Boys," "Gran Torino," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Million Dollar Baby," "Mystic River," "Unforgiven")
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