‘Sully’ Review: Tom Hanks’ Biopic Doesn’t Quite Reach New Heights

2.5 stars (out of 4)

Everyone knows what happened to US Airways Flight 1549 on that winter day in New York City in 2009. Watching it all transpire on the big screen is still a heart-stopping, breath-holding wonder. It was a “Miracle on the Hudson” in every sense.

Tom Hanks as Chesley
Tom Hanks as Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger. Courtesy of Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.

If only the rest of Sully (opening Friday, September 9) wasn’t grounded in mediocrity. In obvious airline terms, this purported “untold story” of one man’s actions under pressure definitely flies — but it does not soar.

Sully, of course, is Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks, forever first class), the veteran pilot who had just departed LaGuardia Airport when birds struck his aircraft. With both engines gone and the plane steadily falling, he made the snap decision to put the jet in the Hudson River. All 155 people aboard survived, and nobody suffered major injuries. That safe water landing was a first in aviation history, as was the double bird strike. Amazing.

Sully
'Sully' Courtesy of Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.

The entire ordeal lasted just 208 seconds. Director Clint Eastwood must fill 96 minutes, and he does it by dwelling on the dark side. By doing so, Eastwood asks to forget about the good-natured and distinguished-looking man ingrained in our memories. In his place is a loner haunted by nightmares and constantly second-guessing his decision. He must defend himself to angry officials. Strangers want to hug him and buy him a drink, and he just wants to go home to his worried wife (Laura Linney) and kids.

Eastwood also illustrated the complicated inner workings of a patriotic hero in his last movie, American Sniper. Like Chris Kyle, Sully is not the warm and fuzzy type. That's a fascinating, if challenging, character trait. The difference is that we don’t see Sully as a young boy in Texas following his passion, getting married and spending hours and hours in the air and watching the toll on his family. He doesn’t drink his sorrows away or secretly do drugs like Denzel Washington’s scarred pilot in 2012’s fictional Flight. In this narrow context, he’s just an emotionally bottled-up safety expert trying to deal in the days following a near-death experience. He takes out his frustrations by (whoa!) jogging along the NYC streets in the wee hours. This might have been therapeutic in real life, but it's monotonous here. Besides, with an upstanding actor like Hanks in the lead role, Sully’s upstanding demeanor emerges even during his lowest moments.

Sully
'Sully' Courtesy of Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.

(By the way, Eastwood does toss in precisely two random flashbacks, perhaps out of desperation; they don’t add up to anything other than the fact that Sully was a stone-faced child.)

Sully himself detailed his travails in his 2009 memoir, so surely this heady aftermath is steeped in truth. But it still plays like overinflated melodrama. To recap: Everyone lived. There’s only so much intensity to be wrung out of a stern-looking National Transportation Safety Board executive asking Sully why he didn’t return to the airport. Linney rues financial issues and then promptly disappears two-thirds into the movie. Sully’s discomfort about appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman is a plot point.

Behind the Scenes of Sully
Director Clint Eastwood and actress Laura Linney, behind the scenes in 'Sully.' Courtesy of Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.

Heck, Eastwood has so much time to kill that he re-creates the terrifying flight twice within the movie. The exact same perspective from the cockpit. The exact same harrowing landing. The exact same happy ending. Needless to say, the awe-inspiring, you-are-there experience loses its edge the second time around.

Late in the film, a humbled Sully credits scores of other heroes who came to the rescue that morning. Be sure to recognize the flight attendants, he notes. He also gives a nod to the scared passengers who calmly slid down the inflatable shoots and the New York and New Jersey rescue operators who ferried everyone to boats and helicopters. Nearly all of them are anonymous faces, though. The movie would have been more effective if a few of them were introduced and fleshed out. After all, if Sully didn’t want the spotlight, why shine it only on him?

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