‘Sully’ flies with quiet heroism, stunning visual effects

Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures/Courtesy
"Sully" | Warner Bros.
Grade: B

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The “Miracle on the Hudson.” Was it really a miracle or a pilot making a very dangerous decision that just happened to turn out okay? That’s the question at the center of Clint Eastwood’s new drama “Sully.”

The film recounts the events of January 15, 2009, when pilots Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) had to make a risky emergency landing in the Hudson River after birds flew into and blew out the engines of US Airways Flight 1549 less than two minutes after takeoff. The story that many don’t know, which the film unveils, is that of the aftermath when both pilots were questioned by the National Transportation Safety Board about whether or not they made the right decision. Utilizing computer data and simulations, the NTSB determined that Sully could have made it back to the airport. Did he make a mistake?

We know the answer to that though this movie wouldn’t have been made if he did. Like every other based-on-real-events film, what “Sully” has to do is show the problem’s complexities and give us riveting characters. And it partially succeeds.

Where the film falters is in the choices of its director. “Sully” is not, by any means, subtle. That absence bleeds into too many aspects of the film. The dialogue, or at least execution of it, lacks artistry or nuance. Characters state their feelings so openly and blatantly that there’s little room for emotional complexity. Heavy-handed dream sequences and small interactions that praise the captain smack the audience over the head with the message that ‘Sully is a hero,’ ruining the question of whether he is or not.

Hanks is only fine — and that’s no insult. He’s solid and rightfully cast for the role, but he’s been leaps and bounds better. In a role that should’ve seen much more expression and could’ve massively benefitted from a key breakdown like at the end of his recent movie “Captain Phillips” — Hanks has made a career playing American ‘everyman’s — he delivers a reserved performance that isn’t quite rousing. He has his moments, especially at the very end of the film and during the crash, but this film is an investigation into a hero’s doubt and it takes careful subtlety to pull off that doubt. Interestingly enough, Eastwood couldn’t get that out of Hanks here despite doing exactly that with Bradley Cooper in his last film “American Sniper.”

The film’s biggest issue is in its portrayal of the NTSB as a bunch of incompetents with a vendetta against the two pilots. Whereas a safety investigation in such an incident is commonplace, Eastwood’s conservative traditionalism over technology standpoint turns these government figures into bumbling fools obsessed with simulations and almost unbelievably unethical.

The lack of subtlety may not work in most instances, but when the film, for example, opts to pay quite obvious attention to the safety demonstration before the flight takes off and to how all of these passengers are just not caring, it’s hard not to feel chills of terror for what’s to come. And despite character and dialogue blatancy, Aaron Eckhart’s performance thrives on heavy-handedness. His dry humor and expressive rapport with the inexpressive Hanks create a comradery and point of empathy that the film desperately needed to justify its villainous NTSB. And it would be a shame not to mention Eckhart’s glorious, glorious, utterly glorious mustache.

The one aspect of the film that is totally and inarguably spectacular, without any caveats, is the portrayal of the crash itself. The deeply eerie sound design, seamless visual effects, arresting cinematography and editing that so masterfully builds tension all add intangible layers to both the audience’s immersion in the crash sequences and the emotional connection to the passengers on the flight. And with performances in the cockpit that make it seem as though Eckhart and Hanks have been pilots for as long as the real life pilots have been, the crash, which is played from multiple perspectives and under multiple contexts, will yank tears out of your eyes and the breath out of your lungs.

The crash, offering one of the best reasons to see a film in IMAX in a while, is ultimately what saves “Sully.”

“Sully” is now playing at the California Theatre.

 

Kyle Kizu covers film. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.