'Sully' Struggles to Turn a Flight Captain's Heroic Act Into Cinematic Gold

Director Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper) loves a good story about an American hero. If the hero has a flaw, as was the case with American Sniper, all the better. As a result, Eastwood is the perfect guy to helm Sully, a film about how US Airways pilots Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffery "Jeff" Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River to save the lives of their passengers. Sully and Jeff don't call themselves heroes — they maintain that they were just "doing their jobs" as they made a split second decision to land on the water after a "bird strike" took out both of their engines.

While the film features some terrific highly dramatic moments as it captures both the rescue and the courtroom-like drama that ensued in the wake of the crash landing, it also struggles to provide a compelling narrative. There's lots of repetition here as we see the plane's lift off and emergency landing take place several times. And few characters other than Sully are fully developed. Even the 100 or so passengers on the plane essentially remain nameless in the movie. It opens area wide on Friday.

An adaptation of Sullenberger's book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, the film details the stress Sully felt as a result of the subsequent FAA investigation that suggested he might have been able to safely land the plane at a nearby airport. Eastwood goes to great lengths to show how these claims disturbed Sully, who often has nightmares about crashing into buildings or being vilified in the media. In fact, the movie starts with a scene in which Sully imagines flying into a building rather than successfully landing on the Hudson. Even his heart rate remains elevated in the wake of the landing.

Eastwood initially takes us to the airport. We see Sully grab a sandwich at the terminal before he heads to the gate. He and Jeff run through a checklist to make sure everything on the plane works. The takeoff goes smoothly until they hit a flock of geese and both engines lose propulsion. The two remain calm as they mentally calculate ("I eyeballed," Sully later tells investigators) whether they can make it to a landing strip. When they realize they won't make it to an airport, Sully yells out, "Brace for impact." The plane swooshes into the freezing Hudson River, and passengers scramble to get off the thing and avoid falling into the frigid waters.

The real drama comes in the wake of the landing, and the film's second half benefits as a result. Hanks really shines as the embattled Sully who gets grilled by investigators and then has to put up with his nagging wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), who regularly calls to remind him of pending bills and urge him to return to flying as soon as possible so they can continue to pay their mortgage.

While Hanks is terrific throughout the movie as the conflicted Sully, Linney fails to make Lorraine more than a caricature — though the script might really be to blame for the character's shortcomings.

Be sure to stay through the credits to see footage of the real crash and of the crew and passengers, who assembled as a group to celebrate their survival story.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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