‘Sully’ Can’t Pull Off the Landing This Time

GameStop, Inc.


On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger conducted an emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549, crash landing on the Hudson River without a single casualty. He became an overnight media sensation and new American legend for his grace under pressure and ingenuity that day. The true story of Sullenberger is being undertaken by a couple of other American legends in director Clint Eastwood, a towering figure of Americana, and star Tom Hanks, an actor capable of capturing the American soul, in Sully, which recounts that fateful day amongst other aspects of the modern legend of Captain Sully. If Sully proves anything, it’s that not all legends are able to stick their landings. Whether his political musings or his recent directorial output, Eastwood seems determined to diminish his legendary status, and Sully is just the most recent misguided entry in this legend’s last chapter.

The biggest problem facing Sully is the film’s structure, all of which unfolds through flashbacks and dreams that don’t add much to the story at hand. If anything, the film’s non-linear structure rob the film of any emotional impact. From start to finish, Sully is full of moments where you can see Eastwood’s intent but they’re all muddled by baffling storytelling decisions.

When we first meet Sully (Hanks), he’s awaking from a nightmare where the fateful flight doesn’t make its miraculous landing and crashes in the metropolitan area along the Hudson in imagery reminiscent of 9/11. Eastwood will repeat this dream motif with 9/11 imagery yet it never adds any depth to the character. In the days since the emergency landing, Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are forced to answer questions before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), consisting of the sneering Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley), the understanding Elizabeth Davis (Anna Gunn), and the stern Ben Edwards (Jamey Sheridan). They don’t believe that Sully made the right call in landing the plane on the Hudson, insisting that he could’ve returned to the airport. In between grilling by evil bureaucrats and flashbacks of that fateful day, Sully calls his emotional wife Lorraine (Laura Linney). Amidst the personal stress and newfound celebrity, Sully ponders if he made the right call on that particular January day.

As this fractured piece of storytelling continues, it becomes entirely apparent that any character not named Sully is going to get shortchanged, and by the end it’s clear that even Sully isn’t given much depth either. A three-time Oscar nominee, Laura Linney is given nothing but scenes where she answers the phone. Not once does she share an actual scene opposite Hanks. The bushy fake mustache that Aaron Eckhart wears is more memorable than any of the characteristics bestowed upon Jeff Skiles. The members of the NTSB investigating committee are just blanket evil bureaucrats with little to motivate them. In the multiple sequences about the plane’s crash and evacuation, a number of passengers and flight crew are introduced in the abstract without the burden of names or characteristics. Even the immense talent of Tom Hanks can’t elevate the material, and the larger internal struggle of the character is resolved with an anti-climactic public hearing featuring multiple scenes of people in flight simulators.

Sully received a lot of press in its production because it’s almost exclusively shot in IMAX. Like practically every other decision in Sully, this make little to no sense. Yes, the IMAX footage works best in the film’s tense moments during the moment of crisis; that is when those moments aren’t broken up by flashbacks and dreams. Other that, there’s really little purpose for the film to employ the large format presentation for numerous scenes in hotel rooms and conference rooms.

The only explanation for film’s fragmented storytelling is an attempt by Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki to find tension in a famous story free of fatalities. With a story that dominated the news cycle, it’s hard to add a level of stakes to the story. This all amounts to a story that is undone by the attempts to play with form. It’s hard to understand the entire nature of Sully’s stress in the early scenes because we’ve yet to witness what he’s gone through. But bouncing around from past to present to dreams featuring Katie Couric to present to past just leaves the movie spiraling out of control. Everything is made all the worse by the film’s dialogue, which alternates between leaden and obvious.

No matter what, Clint Eastwood will always be a legendary cinematic figure. Misfires like Sully and Jersey Boys don’t destroy that legacy, only make it harder to recall the heights amidst the myriad of misbegotten movies of late. Tom Hanks’ performance and his natural ability to evoke empathy is sadly wasted in a movie that tries to do too much at the expense of its own voice. What does come across is that Clint Eastwood really doesn’t care for the NTSB nor does he particularly care to give women roles that demand more of them than answering a phone and getting a bit teary-eyed. Sully had the potential to be a complex story about grace under pressure and the added pressures that sudden celebrity might bring, but Eastwood is incapable or uninterested in finding it. Most of all, Sully is tough to sit though because nobody wants to watch a legend crash and burn.

  • Overall Score


A chaotic piece of fractured storytelling, Sully squanders a solid performance by Tom Hanks in a drama that sees director Clint Eastwood prioritizing a non-linear form over a comprehensive story.

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