Chesley Sullenberger's life, and certainly his finest 208 seconds as a pilot, don't need to be ginned up. Here's an unfathomably decent person by all accounts, who in 2009 landed a crippled commercial jet on New York's Hudson River, saving everyone aboard.
And that's why Clint Eastwood's Sully, recounting that Miracle on the Hudson, doesn't entirely work as a movie. On the good side, we get Tom Hanks — the go-to choice for playing anyone's integrity — as Sullenberger. And thankfully, the true story doesn't contain the heavy conflict or tragedy that drama requires.
So Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki mistakenly conjure some, in the form of an antagonistic safety board investigation into whether Sullenberger's actions were appropriate. Certainly, there was an inquest, but not at this level of suspicion. Sully makes the hero squirm like Denzel Washington's reckless fictional pilot in Flight, who had reasons to worry.
Using that core embellishment, Eastwood and Komarnicki constantly revisit those 208 seconds of in-flight terror, knowing that's all they have. Flashbacks to the river landing, flight simulations, the pilot's nightmares and PTSD imaginings teasing what could have gone wrong.
Remember how CNN ran this story into the ground, as it were? Eastwood does that here, draining whatever suspense that remains in a story for which we know the happy ending.
Sully feels padded while running just over 90 minutes, counting end credits footage of the real Sullenberger reuniting with survivors. That's unusually short for Eastwood, a patient storyteller when working with more detailed material. We get hints of his artistic attachment to Sullenberger: an old guy more confident in his experience than a crisis checklist, another uneasy legend in his own time, like soldiers and gunfighters before.
Eastwood staged their fates in far more interesting conditions than a hotel ballroom, where inquisitors who'll get what's coming to them present a succession of dull flight simulations trying to prove Sully could've landed at a nearby airport or two. A polite audience tsks-tsks at appropriate times. There's a trumped-up charge and a Perry Mason reveal, both much less tah-dah as reported in reality. It may be the most lifeless passage this two-time Oscar-winning director ever filmed.
Hanks is predictably effective as Sullenberger, projecting dignified humility and selfless concern. His reaction when the pilot learns all 155 people aboard his flight survived is one for the lifetime achievement reel. It's also the movie's lone choke-up moment, no matter how many distraught phone calls Hanks shares with Laura Linney, isolated as Sully's wife, Lorraine.
Stronger support comes from Aaron Eckhart as first officer Jeff Skiles, adding touches of comic relief and confirmation of Sully's professionalism. There's also a nice detour involving the air traffic controller tracking US Airways Flight 1549 until it disappeared from his screen. He's more stirring than the handful of lazily sketched survivors.
Hanks keeps things interesting with an array of concerned expressions and distant gazes. But there's no tension in faked suffering. The actor and Eastwood's movie are limited by the goodness of their subject, the flawlessness of his actions. Chesley Sullenberger is a great guy. Where's the movie in that?
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.