In case you haven’t gotten the memo, fall is here. Confused? Let me break it down for you: No longer is the temperature or calendar our cue for the change in seasons. It’s now dictated by consumerism and culture: Pumpkin-spiced everything creeps onto grocery store shelves, and autumnal imagery is adumbrated every which way.
But the real signifier of fall is the year’s first prestige movie: the first film (usually) directed by an Oscar-nominated/winning director, (usually) starring an Oscar-nominated/winning actor, and (usually) about a real-life person or event, dramatically reinterpreted for the cinema.
Enter Sully. Directed by Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood and starring Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, Sully is the dramatic retelling of the 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” incident, wherein a US Airways flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport made an emergency water landing on the Hudson River shortly after takeoff, after experiencing dual engine failure.
At the time, the airplane’s pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, was hailed as a hero for his skilled water landing in which all 155 passengers survived—a “miracle,” if you believe in such a thing. But with Sully, Eastwood explores what went on behind closed doors after the incident: Was landing in the Hudson really the best choice of action? Could he have made it to a nearby airport as the National Transportation Safety Board’s simulations suggest?
The film takes place in the days immediately following the landing by Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (a gloriously mustachioed Aaron Eckhart). Sully is dazed by narrowly avoiding a catastrophe and overwhelmed from all the media attention he’s getting. In between grueling interrogations by the NTSB and media appearances, he is plagued by worst-case-scenario, what-could-have-happened visions—probably suffering from a mild case of PTSD.
He’s stopped and recognized everywhere he goes—on the streets, in a cab, in a bar—by strangers thanking him for avoiding what could have been New York’s worst disaster since 9/11. But Sully doesn’t feel very heroic: “I was just doing my job,” is his default response, usually delivered with a maudlin timbre.
Sully is at its best when it’s in full dramatic reenactment mode, and at its most eye-rolling when it shifts to emotional handwringing. Eastwood, a skilled if not heavy-handed director, films the sequence of Flight 1549’s water landing—the film’s undeniable centerpiece—with enough tension to inch butts to the edge of seats, even though we all know how it ends. But the scenes in between the action—of Sully questioning his actions after long-winded NTSB interviews, phoning his wife (an endlessly harried Laura Linney) reassuring her that he’s fine, or running the frigid streets of New York City in the middle of night because he can’t sleep—is what seriously drags down Eastwood’s film.
These are the arcs that guide Sully, but unfortunately, they’re nowhere near weighty enough to give the film dramatic tension. Instead, Eastwood wastes an otherwise stellar cast (which features, to disappointing effect, the likes of Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley, Michael Rapaport, and Sam Huntington, among other familiar faces) on too much procedural ho-hum.
As far as Oscar-baiting prestige films go, Sully is… fine. It’s certainly not as objectionable as many of Eastwood’s late-career fare (American Sniper, J. Edgar, Gran Torino), but it’s too slight to be criticized too harshly. Actually, Sully would’ve made a fine PBS special.
Sully opens Friday at theaters everywhere.