It is difficult to find any semblance of true honesty in Sully. This probably comes from the fact that we are constantly being clamped into a seat, much like the events depicted in the movie, and expected to brace for impact in the form of patriotism and emotions. This has become the defining quality of director Clint Eastwood recently, who has focused strictly on embalming these moments of American history rather than exploring them.
Similar to his approach with Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) in American Sniper, the human qualities of the film’s protagonist are only hindrances to his ascendance into eternal fame. Not to say that either of these men are not heroes, but Eastwood is more interested in plastering their faces on a poster rather than dealing with the real issues plaguing them.
In the case of American Sniper, it was throttling with Kyle’s PTSD, which haunted him and poisoned his returns back from duty. We are shown moments where Kyle sits and grapples with the acts he took part in while over in Iraq and Afghanistan, but lacks any real examination into what this character is dealing with. Instead, Eastwood shows the character suffering from the illness before being thrust back into action again and again — without another thought..
Sully suffers from a similar storytelling mechanism, but with different methods. Instead of returning back and forth from war, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) is in the midst of an investigation into the landing of his U.S. Airways aircraft into the Hudson River following the malfunction of both engines. The NTSB doesn’t buy his story that he couldn’t re-route and bring the plane back to LaGuardia airport under the conditions he faced.
Sully knows they’re wrong — as he says to them during a hearing, he felt the engines go. He isn’t a pilot whose testimony about aviation you can pass over lightly. As we see in flashbacks, he has a very storied career in flight both as an Air Force pilot and working with the airline. Eastwood offers these brief glimpses into the past of Sully, but doesn’t really give much context to them.
The flashbacks are technically linking to points that had just been referenced in a meeting but it doesn’t mesh with what the rest of the movie is trying to do. We are broken away from the true drama, which is set in due to the impeccable work done by Tom Hanks.
Hanks is at his best in Sully when he is allowed to work the screen using his face. In close-ups on the actor, more emotion is evoked than anything in the script can do. Hanks plays Sully with a detached gaze, his eyes filtering through the events of the crash at a rapid pace without us noticing.
The movie creates real moments (such as the plane crashing into buildings in NYC) to allow Hanks to react to the atrocities that could’ve taken place had he not landed the plane in the river, but the shock of those don’t last as long as the fear permeating through Hanks’ gaze. The career moment that would relate would probably be the final scene in Captain Phillips where the actor breaks down as his character is finally rescued from the pirates that held him and his crew captive over the course of the narrative.
In that moment, the traumatic events, the death, and the utter lack of faith in returning home alive is conveyed in a mostly silent outburst of pure emotion. Hanks conveys the feelings of freedom and satisfaction with finding safety so vividly that nothing else needs to be said.
In Sully, Hanks lacks the ecstasy of that moment and filters his trauma through a much more restrained and calm approach. While the movie enjoys moments where people outwit the “villains” and shows them the errors of their ways, Hanks lets Sully do it in a much quieter way. He never shouts or grandstands, he speaks his mind and returns to his reserved attitude.
In this, the movie is a successful exploration into the general person’s process of coming to terms with a traumatic moment that occurred in their life. It finds empathy in the moments when Sully is required to appear on national stages (whether it is David Letterman or Katie Couric) and looks visibly uneasy with having to work through the events of that day on such a large stage.
But none of this holds together a narrative that doesn’t have the legs to be something substantial. It is moving to watch Sully as he makes sure every last passenger is off the ship.
Much like the rest of his recent output, Sully feels like Clint Eastwood doing the bare minimum to examine a recent American hero. It is not to say that he should’ve defaced or vilify them, but it never seemed to feel like as big of a story as it wanted to be. If there is one true hero in this movie, it is Tom Hanks, who did his best to save this plane crash story from sinking into the river.