Three years ago, Tom Hanks played the head of a cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in Oscar-nominated drama Captain Phillips. However, the beloved actor is the captain now, er, again, returning to the screen to bring yet another real-life figure to life.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Sully tells the story behind the January 2009 emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in New York’s Hudson River, an event that the media dubbed the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Hanks stars as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, whose actions fall under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) despite having saved all 155 people onboard. Rather than take the obvious route of building up to the crash, Sully starts truly in the midst of its aftermath, and the opening moments even feature an effective bit of misdirection.
The film’s decision to focus so closely on how all the media scrutiny and allegations affect Sully himself proves to be something of a double-edged sword, both gifting Sully with the umpteenth stellar performance of Hanks’s career and instilling a perpetual lull in its storytelling. Sure, there are a few memorable moments – notably, Sully’s reaction to news that all of his flight’s passengers survived – but audiences are largely left waiting and pondering the pilot’s actions and his fate alongside him. Ironically, much of the film centers on a series of simulations that may or may not have proven that Sully’s risky actions were warranted, and Sully itself feels like it’s trying too hard (or not hard enough?) to put moviegoers into its protagonist’s head.
In any case, Eastwood’s film features some of the most on-the-nose dialogue of the year, and it’s shocking that there’s no point in which “For Your Consideration” begins flashing across the screen. This lack of subtlety is further compounded by unnecessary flashbacks that show a young Sully discovering his love of flying and then using those skills in the military later in life.
Sully never seems to decide if it wants to offer a microcosmic view of this single incident or a full-fledged biopic of the man himself. Instead, its slapdash structure and some particularly stilted drama among the passengers on the plane muddy the film’s narrative. At barely over an hour and a half, Sully is somehow stretched nearly to the point of tedium, diluting what should have been a riveting tale of heroism.
That said, Sully does feature a particularly low-key Hanks performance, following up his similarly on-point – and superior – work in last year’s Bridge of Spies. Laura Linney is serviceable as Sully’s wife, though the gifted actress isn’t given much depth to work with. Rather, the standout among the cast is actually Aaron Eckhart. The Dark Knight star plays Sully’s First Officer Jeff Skiles and delivers the most layered performance in the film. While Hanks alternates between feeling burdened and vindicated, Eckhart serves as support system, comic relief and fierce defender of the actions that transpired that day. Even the half-baked dialogue that Sully periodically forces onto Eckhart is easier to digest, thanks to his delivery.
While much of Sully is an Oscar-bait meditation, the film only really kicks into high gear in its last 20 minutes or so. Focusing on the more procedural aspects of the NTSB investigation, this is when moviegoers finally get a more detailed look at the crash itself, and Hanks at last morphs from a passive character thrust into the spotlight to one with a bit of agency to him. Perhaps if Eastwood and his team had blown up this part of the story to feature length – rather than circling the narrative runway by hammering home Sully’s inner conflict for over an hour first – than Sully could have been a legitimate awards contender.
Regrettably, its final form doesn’t create a tale compelling enough to become a bonafide classic, even with its strong points. Sully would still be an apt choice to put on in the background during a sleepy Sunday afternoon at home. However, if not for the strength of its third act (which appropriately helps the film to stick the landing), Sully would probably be one of the most forgettable releases by both Hanks and Eastwood in the past decade. Those two Hollywood heavyweights together should have been an easy slam dunk, and in that respect, the film is a fairly big letdown.
Tom Hanks turns in a beautifully restrained performance in Sully, but despite some memorable sequences, the plodding script feels padded even at barely over 90 minutes.