Clint Eastwood’s Sully would make a great 35-minute movie. As is, with its modest 95-minute running time, it’s still entirely serviceable, but there are many, many moments in the movie that feel like padding. Like, maybe we didn’t need a flashback to the first time Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger flew an airplane – I just assumed it had happened at some point and would have been fine for that to remain a minor mystery. But, that’s the inherent problem with a movie based on an event that lasted six minutes.
And that’s a fairly “hard out” six minutes. Put it this way: with other disasters, there are usually events that led up to the fateful moments. Someone made a mistake or someone did something nefarious. US Airways Flight 1549 hit some birds. This movie is not going to spend any time showing us what those birds did earlier on that day. So, this creates a problem.
But, first: the depiction of the flight itself, shown in flashbacks, is very intense, and we see it more than once. (Also: I would not recommend flying out of LaGuardia the day after seeing Sully, as I am going to do.) The first time we see it is when the film opens, it’s Sully’s (Tom Hanks) nightmare version of the events that happen that day, with the plane striking a building in downtown Manhattan. But that’s not what happened. As we know, the plane safely landed on the Hudson River. Even with this knowledge, as we watch Sully decide to land his plane on the Hudson, the film does a pretty good job of making the viewer forget that everything turned out just fine. From the film’s standpoint, there’s really no way this should have worked. But here we are, watching a movie about the plane’s pilot.
The non-flight portions of the film struggle for something to do. Still in New York while the flight is under investigation, Sully calls up his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), asking if he wants to do something. The two go walking around Manhattan at night. It’s a fine enough scene, but it does have the feeling of, “Hey, I have nothing to do, want to hang out? We have 30 minutes to kill before this movie shows the crash again.”
There’s some decent drama built off the lingering stress from this crash and how it affects Sully. And that’s the thing: In real life, Sully comes off so professional and so calm and so cool, I think we just kind of all assumed that this whole experience didn’t bother him very much. Of course, that’s impossible. But since this crash, Sully has almost become a mythical figure. It’s nice we have heroes. But Sully does a nice job of deconstructing the myth and showing us a man who didn’t quite get over that crash as quickly as we all thought he did.
The movie uses a good portion of the film to portray the National Transportation Safety Board as the villains, the people who just didn’t appreciate what Sully did and want to stick him with some blame. Of course, if there were some blame, we wouldn’t be watching a movie about Sully starring Tom Hanks right now, but the film tries to go in this direction anyway. (I can only imagine members of the NTSB watching Sully while shaking their heads at how awful they come off, murmuring, “Well, that’s not quite how it happened.) In the film Flight, the investigation was interesting. Denzel Washington’s character saves hundreds of lives, but he was also high on cocaine. There was a real moral dilemma in that film. The closest Sully gets is the question of if he could have made it safely back to LaGuardia or to an airport in New Jersey. During the proceedings, we watch, count ‘em, four simulations depicting if this was possible or not. Not imaginary scenarios featuring Hanks and Eckhart, but literally watching people try to make this landing in a flight simulator machine… four separate times. Again, this movie needed padding.
Sully is filled with hokey scenes — there’s one in particular involving a dream about Katie Couric (the real Couric appears in the film) — but for every moment like that, there’s another one that made me want to tear up. If nothing else, Sully will remind you that this landing in the Hudson River should have never worked. But it did and, no matter what, on that day, something good happened. And if anyone deserves to have a movie made about them, warts and all (lots and lots of warts, to extend the runtime) well, Sully is a pretty good choice.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.