Clint Eastwood’s ‘Sully’ Is ‘Flight’ Minus the Cocaine, Denzel, and Fun

The Oscar-bait biopic of Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), who crash-landed a plane on the Hudson River, is all heart and very little head.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Clint Eastwood’s earnest hero’s tale Sully opens on a lively note of adrenaline-laced panic as Tom Hanks stares into the face of impending doom, seated at the helm of a passenger jet careening over Manhattan. Alas, it’s a rush that is rarely matched in a 96-minute film dedicated to those 206 fateful seconds in the lives of 155 strangers who crash-landed on the frigid Hudson River on January 15, 2009, and lived to tell the tale henceforth known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

The impossibility of what Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger pulled off that day to save the lives of every soul on US Airways Flight 1549 captivated the world and landed survivors on talk shows and in newspaper headlines. Eight years after 9/11, it brought collective healing to a wounded city to see how two pilots, the voices in the sky from LaGuardia’s control tower, and NYC’s first responders worked to pull off the impossible in the face of certain death.

Sully wants to be life-affirming Oscar bait, but it’s more like Clint Eastwood’s Book Club For Dads Who Shop In Cargo Pants At Costco. Eastwood seems to believe good intentions are interesting enough to hold an audience rapt, and he is wrong. Sully is a movie in which Katie Couric plays herself interviewing Hanks as Sullenberger, because she interviewed the real Sullenberger seven years ago. It’s a movie shamelessly angling for the hearts of New Yorkers with lines like “No one dies today,” uttered from one friendly NYPD rescuer to a hypothermic survivor. As one character marvels in Sully, the least subtle film with the most bombastic 9/11-evoking imagery of the year: “It’s been a while since New York had news this good—especially with an airplane in it.”

At its center is Hanks’s Sullenberger: a white-haired veteran pilot whose countless hours of service help him make the quick-fire decision to land on the Hudson River after a flock of birds flies into his plane, knocks out both engines, and sends his aircraft hurtling down into the New York City skyline. He’s but a man of few words, haunted by the ordeal and totally overwhelmed when it turns him into a folk celebrity overnight. When he sleeps he sees nightmarish visions of what could have been, his plane screaming out of the sky, aiming for the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

What most people didn’t know is that Sullenberger also found himself under investigation as insurers and the airline sought to know why he sunk their plane in the river. Eastwood is obsessed with what happened in that cockpit, so much so he recounts those three-and-a-half minutes several times over in Sully. That makes for at least one spectacular CGI-fueled recreation, a tense sequence highlighted by the worry and resolve washing over Hanks’ face and that of his younger stalwart co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), as they realize the water is their best hope of survival.

But Eastwood dedicates too much time to recounting that plane crash—er, emergency water landing—over and over and over again, along with its aftermath, and not enough time showing us who Sullenberger really is. That’s a problem because the nuts and bolts of the crash and rescue are so boring there’s often no drama to keep your interest on the screen.

Brief flashbacks gloss over the young Sully’s lifelong devotion to responsible piloting and a stint as a fighter pilot in the Air Force, during which he forcibly landed a jet against all odds, ignoring outside advice. You’d think Sullenberger’s history of waving off procedure to land aircrafts on sheer gut instinct might factor into, say, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) probe of his Hudson landing. Instead, Eastwood hammers home the incredible feat he achieved by choosing a risky water landing over heading for either of two neighboring airports—simply because, the film argues, his instincts turned out to be right.

The most intriguing aspect of Sullenberger’s story also gets short shrift: The idea that right before the accident, Sullenberger started his own airline safety consulting business, touting himself as a professional safety expert. In a way, a cynic might suggest, the real Sully had a lot more to lose than just his dignity in the months after the crash—he had bills to pay, a family to raise, and a reputation to protect.

It’s easy to see why Hanks, America’s Dad, would gravitate to the role that’s already landing him in the sights of Oscar watchers. Sullenberger has just the kind of stoic heroism that Hanks can ratchet up in his sleep with the furrow of a single perfectly sensitive, quietly concerned brow. But Eastwood, directing Todd Komarnicki’s script adapted from Sullenberger’s own bestselling memoir, has other aims: To expose the nefarious federal investigators who questioned Sully’s actions that day, sifting through the post-crash evidence for clues to his criminal wrongdoing or bad judgment, threatening to taint the sanctity of his all-American heroism.

If much of this sounds familiar, it’s because Denzel already did it in 2012’s Flight, and earned an Oscar nod for his trouble. Flight, admittedly, was the edgier—and fictional, and fun—version of Sully, which also attempts to explore the extraordinary human instincts of split-second cockpit heroism. Here, however, there are no flaws to be found in the painfully admirable Sullenberger, who appears in the credits roll in a staged reunion with his former passengers, the American flag proudly displayed behind him. Eastwood’s treacly Sully-worship is a bit much. It’s the anti-Flight: no vodka screwdrivers on the job, no cocaine picker-uppers, definitely no sex, and no discernable person of color with a significant speaking role to be seen in the entire movie.

As a depiction of true events, perhaps, that glaring lack of diversity might be understandable. But in our woketastic post-racial times, Sully comes off as the saccharine tale of one exceptional white man who saved a plane full of Caucasian passengers—yay, America! I thought I glimpsed one Asian face seated in the aisle of Sully’s plane, but like the fourth member of the NTSB board that later interrogates him—an African-American gentleman in a suit who sneaks in one disaffected glimpse at Sullenberger while his three colleagues (Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Jamey Sheridan) do all the talking—he didn’t get a single line of dialogue.

For a film that takes pains to celebrate the unifying community spirit of New York City, the Manhattan of Sully is incredibly bland and laughably undiverse. Two helpful minorities get to deliver throwaway lines in heavy accents as they flit cheerily in and out of Sully’s day. Welcome to Clint’s America. Sully is downright audacious in its mundanity, a film that dares to open not one, but at least five scenes on an establishing shot of a Marriott Hotel. Multiple Marriott Hotels, even. Someone in Marriott’s promo department got their branding placement money’s worth.

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My mind wandered to the Marriott and other topics as I endured Sully, staring up at Hanks’s giant pliable mug on an IMAX screen: The fact that we now know he ate a tuna sandwich for lunch that day, for example. Or how he wears New Balance tennis shoes, the ultimate in dad swag. How long did it take Aaron Eckhart to grow that perfectly lush brush-broom moustache? Every time you hit turbulence on an airplane, are you just one flock of geese away from certain disaster? And perhaps the most terrifying line of all, uttered by the air traffic controller who loses contact with Sully’s plane and fears the worst: “People don’t survive water landings.”

That’s not to say all of Sully is a wash. For those aeronautical history buffs out there, it offers a fascinating look at what happened inside the cockpit that day—and food for thought on how much we undervalue human contributions to society in our rush toward technological dependency. Of course, it also paints the NTSB as suspicious for being suspicious of Sullenberger’s decisions in the first place. Trust in the human element, Sully tells us, while tripping itself up in the technical details. In the end, a robot simulation didn’t land US Airways Flight 1594. A real hero did. If only he got a film biopic to match.