Review: Tom Hanks just can’t keep Clint Eastwood’s ‘Sully’ in the air

First and foremost: Chesley Sullenberger did extraordinary work in landing US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River, and every single person involved in the rescue efforts that day deserves the highest possible praise for how they handled things. Every single passenger and crew member aboard survived, and that is to be celebrated, certainly.

But as a film?

I can imagine all of the good impulses that went into the decision to make Sully, but none of that matters when the film is as resolutely limp as this one. Clint Eastwood often works in a minor key, which is one of the things I like most about him as a filmmaker. He has always been interested in the understated, and Sully is certainly that. The danger is that you can be so understated that it becomes inert, and in the case of Sully, I don”t get the entire thing. I understand that there was a plane crash and a lot of people did their jobs extraordinarily well, but there”s no drama beyond that. There is a bit of busywork made of the investigation, and they try their best to build to a big triumphant finish where Sully is vindicated, but no matter how hard the filmmakers try, it still just comes down to “Adjust the settings on the simulation.” There is nothing compelling here, right down to the plane crash itself, the most seatbelt-buckled IMAX experience I”ve ever had.

Todd Komarnicki”s script is just as stripped down as the acting by Tom Hanks or the direction by Clint Eastwood. The way it”s structured, we get pieces of the crash peppered through the entire film as Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have to face the investigation team made up of Charles Porter (Mike O”Malley), Ben Edwards (Jamey Sheridan) and Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn) in a series of escalating encounters. It”s a pretty straightforward structure, and it”s punctuated with flashbacks to Sully”s life as a pilot and brief asides involving his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney, who answers a whole bunch of phones like a boss). That simplicity fails here, though, because none of these elements are strong enough. The investigation is all phony drama. It makes no sense to have things play as antagonistic as they do. Yes, the plane went into the Hudson, and yes, that was very dangerous, but we know from the start of the film that everyone was okay. How much of a witch hunt are you really going to throw for a guy who has just done such a terrific job of preserving life and limb? The big gotcha moment in the movie, during the last hearing which is now being held in front of a massive auditorium full of people, simply doesn”t work as drama. It”s phony. There are no real stakes, and I find the attempts at creating suspense to be almost offensive. Irritating, at the very least.

The film”s closing title card makes some hay out of the way the day”s events spoke to the terrific character of New Yorkers, and absolutely, everyone did exceptional work. But it feels like a hollow sentiment, easy and cheap. Who”s to say another city would not have also risen to the occasion? I”d like to think it speaks well about what happens when people do what they are trained to do, and that”s not something that is unique to any one city. It just doesn”t feel honest or earned here, and considering this will be arriving in theaters on the 15th anniversary weekend of the September 11th attacks, it almost feels exploitative and pandering.

Technically, the movie is fine, but it all comes down to the plane crash. As Sully himself says in the film, it all comes down to those 208 seconds, and here”s where I feel like Sully finally moves from a stumble to a fall. There are few things more inherently visually immediate and as emotionally immersive as a plane crash on film. There are so many terrifying plane crash sequences on film, and I”m sure you can find at least 20 galleries where you can click through a list including movies like Fearless, Alive, and Flight. When I think of Eastwood as a filmmaker, though, effects-driven set pieces are not his strong suit, and while I suspect every detail of the crash itself is incredibly accurate, it is not particularly cinematic or exciting. It is efficient. It is realistic. It is also plodding and leaden. And while it is authentic, it feels like Eastwood has no real knack for how to frame an effects shot or how to sell that reality. It is a confounding series of scenes, since we return to the crash at several points in the film, seeing different angles and different parts of it, but Clint also re-runs parts of it in full to no real effect. There is no tension, and without tension, I can”t imagine what the point of any of this might be.

Performances in the film range from “just fine” to “perfectly okay,” as much a limitation of the material as anything else. Tom Hanks certainly works hard to give Sully some kind of inner life, but it feels like a hodgepodge of moments that he”s nailed in other films, and without ever approaching the impact of those other films. Remember that remarkable moment in Captain Phillips when he”s finally been rescued and the shock kicks in and suddenly he just collapses internally? Remember how private and real that felt? Yeah, well, there”s none of that here, and it”s because there”s no room for it. Sully talks about losing some sleep, but things move so quickly here that there”s never any chance for any honest reflection. We get a daydream about a plane hitting a building and a few nighttime jogs, but it”s all external business. Aaron Eckhart”s got a thankless job as Sully”s co-pilot, and the rest of the cast has even less room to make an impression. Everyone does what they were hired for, which I guess seems appropriate considering what the film”s about, and if you”ve ever wanted to see Turtle from Entourage jump out of a helicopter, you are in luck, but there”s not much more to be said about the performances. Everyone serves their function, period.

All told, Sully feels like the kind of film that will serve as a tough answer to a trivia question in twenty years. “They made a film about that? Really?” Problem is, I”m not sure Eastwood ever found the answer to that question.

Sully opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.

PERSONAL NOTE: Todd Komarnicki, who is credited with the film”s screenplay, is someone who I have a very direct connection to, although we haven”t spoken in years. I have nothing but fondness for Todd. When I was in the early days of my relationship with my managers, Aaron Kaplan and Sean Perrone, they decided to put my co-writer and me together with Todd to work on our pitching skills. Pitching is such a different thing than writing, but if you want to work professionally, you have to be good in the room, and so you”d better have both skill sets down cold. Todd is a beast in a room. He”s incredibly easy to talk to, and when he tells you a story, he does it with both clarity and confidence. Todd worked with us on a pitch for a big canvass action drama that we took to about fifteen different companies. It didn”t sell, but it was a terrific experience, and invaluable to my own personal growth as a professional writer. It is only fair that I mention my connection to Todd when reviewing his work as a matter of full disclosure.