It’s appropriate that that that the title of Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully can refer both to national-hero airline pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and a verb meaning to attack someone's good name and try to ruin a reputation. You see, the film has been constructed to make Sully not only triumph over crisis in the skies but also those meanies who would dare to question his choices under pressure.
Billed as “the untold story of the Miracle on the Hudson”—that is, Sullenberger’s expert 2009 water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River after dual engine failure—Sully does a fine job of recreating the short flight and its immediate aftermath as 155 souls evacuate. But that’s the “told story” part. The so-called “untold story” is essentially nonsense, suggesting that burgeoning air-safety entrepreneur Sullenberger (oh, the irony!) had to fear the judgement of the National Transportation Safety Board, especially before a climactic public hearing.
The struggle is real for screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (the Halle Berry-Bruce Willis thriller Perfect Stranger) in telling this “untold story,” purportedly based on Sullenberger’s own book (with Jeffrey Zaslow) Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters. Even at 95 minutes, Sully is conspicuously padded, with two narratively useless flashbacks to Sully’s years of flying experience (his four decades of flight experience get mentioned in dialogue, thrice), repetitive scenes of Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) fretting over the NTSB inquisition, and a second depiction of the flight to afford a slightly different perspective.
The film repeats Sullenberger's message that he didn’t pull off the “miracle” alone: he was aided by cool-headed flight crew and air-traffic controllers, ferry and tourist boat rescuers, and reasonably orderly passengers. Komarnicki and Eastwood play the note hard that “the best of New York came together” in a post-9-11 feel-good survival story of can-do New York heroism (a colleague tells Sully, “Y’know, it’s been a while since New York had news this good. Especially with an airplane in it”). If only those nasty investigators and (cough) regulators would stop telling salt-of-the-Earth American heroes their business!
The investigation into the flight—first in closed-door sessions and then in that photogenic public hearing with a crowd of extras and big video screens—absurdly plays out in hostile tones despite numerous scenes that show the media circus (not to mention the survivors and ground-level New Yorkers) hailing Sully as a hero (in a laughably blunt bit of scripting, Sully actually says, “I’m overwhelmed by all this attention”). You can feel each gear turn in the script machinery to turn the screws on Sully, mostly by magnifying investigatory findings that, in real life, were actively minimized. It’s a false premise for suspense, amusingly underlined by Sully’s wife Lorraine suggesting that they could well lose their house if Sully is found at fault (“We need you flying!”).
Of course, Warner Brothers, Eastwood, and Hanks are really hoping you’ll forget that investigations are obligatory, and that public relations exist and generally preclude publicly dressing down heroes. Hanks is demonstrably better than this material: if only he had a Hitchcock around so Hanks could make his Vertigo instead of a dutiful product that plays like a 1980s TV “Movie of the Week” somehow elevated to A-list Oscar bait (and shot almost entirely with Digital IMAX cameras). Not every Big News Story needs to be trotted out as a movie. Maybe there was a worthy way to tell Sully’s story outside of his 208-second trial by air and water, but making Sully a crusader in a hearing room isn’t it.