Based on the 2009 plane crash termed the Miracle on the Hudson, Lee reviews this Clint Eastwood directed, Tom Hanks starring biopic.
From which angle does a filmmaker begin to approach an event that, from almost all immediate accounts, can be readily and aptly described as a miracle? In Sully, director Clint Eastwood makes the right decision: focus on the human being who, with instinct and experience, prevented an almost assured disaster. Honouring a real person for making real decisions, and not drawing attention to any external factors threatening to take away that person’s claim over those decisions, such as divine intervention or a cutaway to some perfectly informative flashback shouldn’t require praise because it’s the right thing to do, but this is cinema and cinema has tropes that make these choices more difficult than they should be, so praise it must be. Eastwood, on this count, makes the right call.
It’s not the only right call, thankfully, but it is unfortunately one of the few. Sully, despite the well-intentioned messages it wants to deliver, makes more than enough missteps to make it borderline unrecommendable. Because beyond the intention, the concept and competent direction, this movie fails near-universally with the aspirations of its narrative.
More than just a simple recreation of a series of events that may have happened in the days following the water landing that saw Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his crew successfully save one-hundred and fifty-five lives from a engineless plane crash, the screenplay aspires to be something of a character study, an insight into PTSD, a pointed message against corporate oversight and its inability to see simple heroism under the shadow of capitalist greed, an insight into a relationship in the wake of an life-threatening incident, a story of human triumph and a tense recreation of an actual plane crash and how it affected the many people on board; all in just over an hour and a half. To call the movie ambitious is to point at its main flaw, if there were to be just one.
As a character study of Sully, a man with steely nerves who looked death in the eye and still asked if everyone was OK, the film has Tom Hanks to thank for bringing any humanity to a screenplay with no real humanity present for the actor to work with.
Sully might genuinely be larger than life, and as a pilot it seems perfectly plausible that he accepts most situations with a deathly calm, but we are given two juxtaposing views of the man to contend: the steady-handed family man with two feet firmly planted on Planet Earth, and the star-studded movie man who utters self-aware lines expressing how he flies people safely around the world for forty years without incident but will be remembered for the exact number of seconds that the crash took. That’s nice thematic commentary, folks.
This heavy-handed clash of real-life with Hollywood is repeatedly at odds with the film’s desire to tell a story about ordinary people in an extraordinary situation, because the people aren’t simply ordinary. For every genuine line of relief from the survivors or office-tinged joke from Eckhart’s Skiles or shop owner who bants naturally with Sully pre-flight, we get an inquisitive caricature of an AirBus representative looking to nickel-and-dime whoever’s responsible, a supposed-to-be professional journalist who blurts out “how did you achieve the impossible?” or an overseer of the incident who serves only to further exposition in an overwrought court case. There’s just so much movie in this movie.
It’s all made worse with every scene in which Sully’s wife appears. The intention seems to have been to portray a husband and wife who just can’t comprehend what has happened to them and so try to act like it’s all just another day, but the payoff is so short and so quickly swept aside for more rescue and interview action, and the build-up so painfully dragged out with scene after scene of phone nagging and overreacting and poorly reasoned half-explanations, that you feel the movie was trying to make an old-fashioned nudge and wink toward stereotypical representations of stay-at-home wives and the hard-working men who just wish they’d shut up; it’s that clumsy, and surely can’t do any sense of justice to the real relationship.
The interviewing reaches a summit of, essentially, ‘we told you so, you miserly penny-pinchers.’ So self-explanatory is the end result, so cartoonish the representatives, so obviously baiting the screenplay to get you to believe there really is a chance this miracle will be undone that it wholly removes the possibility of taking these accusations seriously. Pointedness can work in small doses to drive a message home, but this kind of assault looks and smells like politicking, and any half-conscious mind will immediately discount the argument before raising any form of pitchfork.
PTSD is used infrequently as an attempt to frame the narrative, and it’s just an outright mess. Besides dumbing down what we already know is going through Sully’s head through both performance, suggestions in the narrative (the doctor all but says “you should be in shock right now, you pretty much are”) and explicit conversations spiralling out of sleeplessness; dream sequences and flashbacks are given to us to move the action from after the event to before the event and from night to day because for some reason telling a story where a plane crashes and everyone experiences the aftermath after-the-math would be too on the nose. The transitions, already cheap, don’t even happen in moments of dramatic relevance; they simply happen when nothing else is going on.
It’s this toneless misunderstanding of how to tell the story that begs the biggest question, because both screenwriter and director knew which angle they wanted to take: why couldn’t that be enough? The walk-n-talks, phone conversations and absolute abundance of shot-reverse-shot not only make the staggering amount of mostly unnecessary dialogue unconvincing, distant and cold in their lack of human connectivity, but a boring slog to watch from a purely aesthetic point of view.
And, critically, this wastes what the film does absolutely fine: the crash itself. Attempting to distract you with its fake-outs and its senseless repeats of the action in the wrong places, at the heart of the narrative is a perfectly tense, genuinely pulse-pounding and yet surprisingly intensive and sensitive moment of human integrity and death-defying spectacle. While it does get a little Emmerich-ian with the passengers all having little subplots, it surmounts in a moment of terror and hardship that is utterly devastating to imagine and genuinely serene on a human level to behold. No amount of painful, obvious, actually-scripted references to 9/11 can take away from this mechanical and cinematic achievement that should have just been its own film and nothing else.
Add in a few post-disaster shots that really do bring it all home and we can walk away from this film rejuvenated, despite every other aspect of the film begging you to feel otherwise. It’s a testament to how good this roughly forty minute segment is, because not fifteen minutes pass before we’re actually asked, as an audience, to root for a plane to crash as we watch simulation after simulation trying to prove Sully’s very obviously-innocent choices obviously innocent. If we had any evidence we could claim this jarring change in the name of exploring the artistic bipolar, but it really is just a hapless double-standard carelessly weaved into a film, quietly undermining the importance of the act we had just witnessed. The only connect is to the disjointed nature of the film as a whole, and that’s hardly a compliment.
Plainly-said, Sully is a mess. And perhaps, on some level, we could perhaps designate it as an ‘interesting’ mess. There are good elements here and, most importantly, good-intentions; enough to say the film isn’t a disaster, but it is almost entirely a waste of time and, should Hollywood decide to tell the story again at some point, or if a documentary were to take the same elements and recreate the crash, you would be much better serviced taking your spare time and hard-earned cash and investing it elsewhere.