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As Oscar season kicks in to gear, we are greeted by the inevitable array of award-bait movies. At a glance, Sully has all the hallmarks of your standard plaudit grabbing fare: it tells a harrowing true life story, it is directed by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, and it stars Tom Hanks, the proverbial ‘safe pair of hands’ actor.
Chances are, you’ve heard the story: a US Airways flight leaving LaGuardia Airport had a flock of birds fly into the engines moments after taking off. The impact killed both engines, and with seconds to react, pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made the decision to conduct a highly dangerous water landing on the Hudson River. The landing was a success, and all 155 people on board were left unscathed.
Films of this type can often be great, but sometimes they can empty, joyless experiences that just go through the motions. Clock in, put on a wig, cry powerfully in the third act and collect your Oscar nomination. Sully lands somewhere between these two areas. It has flourishes of excellence, but a lot of it is weighed down by a tone that is at best sombre, or at worst dour.
When a film is built around one big moment, it can strain to build a strong dramatic narrative around it. Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk worked because the lead character was colourful and enigmatic, and the build to the World Trade Center high walk was done like a meticulously plotted heist movie, so it was able to keep the viewer intrigued.
In Sully, you can feel the filmmakers straining to find that narrative hook. Early in the film, there’s a real sense of anxiety – Hank’s Sully is haunted by visions of crashing airplanes, which are the film’s most gripping and impressive visual moments. But a lot of the film struggles to find an emotional moment that connects with the audience. Sully has trouble sleeping, he walks the streets in some sort of existential anguish, and he’s clearly suffering from PTSD. But this doesn’t inform the story; it isn’t addressed and there is no resolution of any sort.
But as the film progresses, a large chunk is spent covering Sully going through the post incident bureaucratic rigmarole. Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles – played by the offensively handsome Aaron Eckhart – are forced to defend their actions to a villainous board of inquiry that is investigating whether Sully made the incorrect decision landing the plane in the Hudson.
These antagonistic characters feel like a forced addition, an attempt to manufacture drama. Hanks’ Sully is clearly a hero, the viewers and the creative team behind the film know it. Eckhart’s Skiles is clearly a stand-in for the audience, regularly defending the soft-spoken Sully, and decrying the investigation as unfair.
The performances are note perfect, with Hanks, as per usual, outstanding. Hanks has been so good for so long, that it’s easy to forget just how excellent he can be. His understated acting style suits the film’s atmosphere perfectly, and while there are no stand-out displays of emotional pyrotechnics, he carries the movie effortlessly.
The film’s look and atmosphere is solid if uninspiring. The on-plane action is effective – though it feels like a dramatization, rather than the far more effective ‘fly on the wall’ style employed by Paul Greengrass in United 93.
The film’s centrepiece, the plane landing on the Hudson, is brought to life vividly. The events of the crash are rolled out slowly, almost in real time, so the viewer gets real sense of the building danger. The story jumps around in time, which affords the filmmakers a chance to spread out the bracing moments of the crash throughout the movie to keep the viewers on their toes.
The crash itself is handled is handled well, with some impressive special effects. The post-crash stuff is particularly well done, with the striking image of all the passengers crowded on to the wings of the plane providing a memorable moment – though the slow, jazzy piano playing over the scene is an odd choice for the score as it doesn’t really complement the scene effectively.
All in all, Sully is a well acted, solidly crafted film. It tells a story worth telling, though it struggles to find a strong emotional hook that really grabs the viewer. So while it’d be a stretch to say Eastwood is back to his best behind the director’s chair, after the propagandistic garbage-fire that was American Sniper, he has at least steadied the ship.
Sully is in cinemas now. View the trailer below.