Why go to any movie when you know how it is going to end before you even buy your ticket? That’s the sort of question that should be asked by moviegoers considering seeing the new movie Sully, the story of what happened when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed a plane full of passengers on the Hudson River one cold January day.
But the movie isn’t a biopic and it isn’t exclusively about that crash. It’s about a quiet, humble man who never saw himself as a hero, didn’t want the limelight and the media attention, and stressed over and over he was just doing his job according to his training and a lifetime’s worth of experience.
That’s pretty much exactly how director Clint Eastwood tackles Sully’s story. As much as Sully–played by everybody’s picture of an everyday all-American, Tom Hanks–with his sure hand and steady grip brought the plane down in the Hudson and saved the life of everybody onboard was played as a hero by the media circus that surrounded the downing of the plane, Sully himself is supremely uncomfortable being interviewed or getting attention for a handful of seconds in the air after being a pilot in one form or another for 42 years. He’s a quiet man who never really thinks about himself. Towards the end of the movie, Sully tells his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (played by an equally humble Aaron Eckhart) that it was both of them doing their jobs that saved the passengers’ lives, and Sully didn’t believe he alone deserved that much credit.
Eastwood’s film backs up this version of events. Employing his typical quiet, meditative style behind the camera, Eastwood takes the time to not only feature Sully, but when depicting the events of the hard water landing around the halfway point of the film, shows not only Sully being a true professional doing his job as he should, but also Skiles, the flight attendants, the NYPD, the air traffic controllers, the Coast Guard, and a few Staten Island Ferry crews all doing their jobs, working together to save the lives of 155 passengers and crew. Aside from one or two passengers who attempt to swim for shore in icy January water, even the other passengers are largely doing as they should to stay alive. It’s Sully’s story, so while Hanks gets the majority of screen time, showing an idolizing public and clamoring press wanting more from the man than he thinks he deserves, Eastwood backs up Sully’s own views that the day was saved by the efforts of more than just one man.
That said, the movie is far from perfect. Much of the conflict seems to come from the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigators seemingly hostile view of Captain Sullenberger’s actions. Those individuals themselves stress they were only doing their jobs, but the film seems to cast them as the villains nonetheless. The film concludes with the end of their investigation, and much of what happens there seems awfully convenient in terms of plotting. As a study of what kind of man Sully is, the film is quite good. The final act, however, doesn’t do it much in the way of favors. The film even goes so far as to suggest Sully is suffering from a bit of PTSD as a result of either the water landing or the investigation questioning his decisions. How much of this portion of the movie is as true as the events surrounding it I don’t know, and given how much Eastwood changed from the source material of Amercian Sniper in order to tell the story he really wanted to tell, I would even argue that it is immaterial. The problem is the final act seems to come from a different movie, or at least one where the writers and directors felt they needed to wrap up all the plot points in a neat little package. It just doesn’t help.
Despite that, I’ll give the movie eight and a half crash simulations out of ten for just the quiet character study and Hanks’ grounding performance.
Oh, and the real Sully, with his wife and a number of the survivors of that landing, appears during the closing credits.