On the 15th of January 2009 Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was flying an Airbus out of New York’s LaGuardia airport. Following a massive bird strike Sully lost both engines and was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River for fear of crashing into New York city. The whole event took less than four minutes and Sully is widely regarded as a modern day hero. Seven years later Clint Eastwood has stretched and padded those four minutes to make them into feature film and thrown in a bad guy for good measure.
In Sully we get Hollywood’s favourite everyman Tom Hanks stepping into the lead role and bringing with him his reliable air of humble gravitas. Sully doesn’t see himself as a hero but the film forces him to defend his status as one as it shows the pivotal four minutes intercut with an investigation into whether or not Sully actually had to land in the Hudson; the alternative theory being that he could have safely made a return trip back to the airport. The bulk of the film is Sully wringing his hands about this disagreement and the wildly exaggerated depiction of the aggressive investigation into the crash landing. It seems than in making Sully a hero Eastwood decided he needed to make someone the villain. Clearly Eastwood is a fan of Unbreakable.
Further padding out the film are flashbacks showing Sully’s past flying planes and scenes of his wife fretting at home. Feel sorry for Laura Linney who is reduced to looking concerned while talking into the phone and peering out of the window at photographers. Hanks’ Sully seems almost cold towards his wife so any emotional weight intended to be brought by their relationship is non existent. The flashbacks also add nothing to the film beyond showing us that Sully has always enjoyed flying and that flying isn’t always easy. Nothing revelatory there. These are mere distractions from the flight investigation which is itself a distraction from the crash which we get to see numerous times over from moderately different viewpoints.
It doesn’t feel nice to say that the story of Sully is too bland to make a decent film. There is no doubt that the real Sully did something brave and heroic but this very lack of doubt is why there is no drama in the rest of the film. Outside of the thrilling minutes of the crash the film is nothing but filler. Tom Hanks does his best but Sully, a wonderful man I’m sure, isn’t particularly interesting to spend time with. The resultant film is a completely non-cynical patriotic celebration of Sully and is just missing him standing in front of a slowly waving American flag to complete the canonisation.
Sully’s actions deserve celebrating but they do not deserve this lightweight drama. Never has a film based on true events suffered so much from a lack of material.