Because the story the movie is based on is true and received worldwide press coverage, Sully is a sort of disaster movie – but without the disaster. We already know that everyone survives, and so it seems to struggle to find the dramatic tension integral to the genre. In fact, no spoiler alerts are needed in this review because you already know what happens.
In contradiction to the audience’s foreknowledge, the opening scene shows the stricken flight losing altitude as it weaves through the New York skyline and crashes into a skyscraper – before Sully wakes, startled, to show us it was a dream. This imagined disaster seems like a cheap trick by Director Clint Eastwood, who tries to ramp up tension by withholding a blow-by-blow account of the actual event until the movie’s finale. Instead, repeatedly teasing us with Sully’s imagined visions of just how badly it could have been.
Eastwood is, for the most part, interested in the investigation Sully and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (played solidly by a moustachioed Aaron Eckhart) endure after the landing. The officious head bureaucrat of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) (played by a smirking Mike O’Malley) seems implausibly hell-bent on taking our hero Sully down, accusing him of errors in judgement and even asking if he is having trouble at home.
This contrasts sharply with the reaction of the public we are shown – a cab driver congratulates him, random strangers hug him, and he is lauded on national television. Further attempts to increase dramatic tension come from repeated phone calls to his wife Lorraine (played competently by Laura Linney, who isn’t given much work) that touch on the couple’s financial troubles, which could lead to ruin if Sully is stripped of his wings by the NTSB.
Finally, we are given the full sequence of events that led to the landing on the Hudson, and here Eastwood delivers. It is a claustrophobic and genuinely scary portrayal of the event from both the passengers’ and pilots’ views. The special effects are simple and realistic to the point that you feel as though you are experiencing the real thing.
The culmination of the film is the public NTSB hearing in which Sully and his co-pilot have to defend their actions in the face of computer simulations that say they could have turned the plane around to land safely at La Guardia Airport.
Hanks delivers his impassioned speech on how computer simulations can’t account for the “human factor” and demands that more time be given to account for human decision making in the face of an unprecedented set of circumstances. Once re-calculated to account for reaction time, the simulations fail to land safely, and the NTSB board unanimously declare him a hero.
Though it’s competently directed – as you would expect from veteran film-maker Eastwood – it seems he could have picked a story with more mystery about the outcome. Here, Eastwood (who is known for his support of the small-government championing Republican party) is forced to make a straw man of the NTSB before knocking it over with barely a whimper.
Tom Hanks, who specialises in playing the stoic, work-a-day every-man cum hero (think of his recent turns in Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies) is a safe pair of hands for Eastwood. Although convincing and likeable as ever, Hanks himself seems to be in autopilot mode with this latest role and it would be interesting to see him play a role with a bit more of a dramatic range.