Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sully

2.5/4

Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O'Malley

Rated PG-13 for Some Peril and Brief Strong Language

When I first heard that they were going to make a movie based on the "Miracle on the Hudson," Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's near-impossible water landing on the Hudson River, I thought it was a bad idea.  I mean, what story is there?  A 90-second crash landing that shouldn't have been possible?  I mean, Sully deserves all the accolades he got, but turning it into a feature film would try the talents of any filmmaker.  And despite his best attempts, Clint Eastwood can't do it.

The majority of the film takes place after the incident.  Sully (Hanks) is dealing with the trauma and all the attention he's getting, but not very well.  Adding insult to injury, the NTSB is breathing down his neck, thinking that maybe he could have landed the plane at another airport rather than take the insane chance and crash land on the Hudson River.

The problem with the film is that there isn't enough material here to fill out a full-length narrative film.  The crash sequence is exciting and well-executed, but the other material built around it is thin and nothing that we haven't seen before.  Sully is traumatized, sniveling bureaucrats want to throw him under the bus, and so on.  Just about everything that is on screen has appeared in other, better movies, and Eastwood fails to find a new angle on it.

The mistake, I think, was to turn it into a film with a narrative thread.  Another film that covered similar material was "United 93," and that succeeded because it didn't do that.  It was a docudrama that was a play by play of the events of the United 93 crash.  By sticking so close to the truth and not massaging it into clear narrative bites, it allowed the events to take center stage.  The problem, again, is time.  The United 93 flight took much longer to play out than the "Miracle on the Hudson."

Tom Hanks, who can really do no wrong, is in fine form as the title character.  He underplays the role, playing Sully as a mild-mannered man thrust into a media firestorm that he wants no part of and sees his daring rescue of 155 people turned against him.  Hanks captures a Sully's low-key personality, but at the same time it robs him of much of his charisma and screen presence.  It's at times difficult to form a bond with him.  By contrast, Hanks did something similar to much better effect in another film based on an incident that took place a few months after US Airways Flight 1549: "Captain Philips" (which, incidentally, was directed by Paul Greengrass, who directed the aforementioned "United 93").  Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney and others provide support, but this is Hanks's show.

The film is oddly structured.  It starts off with Flight 1549 crashing into downtown New York, only to be revealed as a dream sequence with Sully waking up gasping.  It's a cheap shot that, considering the context, is inappropriate and a little exploitative.  Then he follows Sully suffering the indignity of an investigation where the odds are stacked against him.  Interspersed with that are two flashbacks of the crash, one from a neutral perspective and the other from Sully's.  It's an interesting and daring choice that pays off rather than feels repetitive.

I have no real complaints about the film's second half, apart from the tail end which feels overly manipulative.  It's the clich├ęd first half that prevents me from giving this an complete recommendation.  At the same time, it's good enough that if you want to see it, I'm not going to try to talk you out of it.  There is tension to be found here and I never had the urge to walk out or fall asleep.  But if you do go, see it in IMAX.

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