REVIEW: Eastwood finds little drama underpinning ‘Sully’

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Clint Eastwood’s “Sully,” despite bathing in Sept. 11 imagery beyond the big-screen re-enactment of the “miracle on the Hudson,” has the inglorious honor of being one of the dullest, most drama-free films of the year.

Tom Hanks is our guy, hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. We know he saved all those people. We know he’s retired from the sky to spend his days grand marshaling parades and victory-lapping on the professional speaking circuit.

But did you know of his terrible burden: The burden of moderate scrutiny from government safety investigators — those damn, dirty pencil-pushers who do this sort of thing every time a plane doesn’t land when and where it should? Can you imagine?

Don’t worry. Audiences won’t be asked to use any part of their imaginations. The recounting of the Sully story — from takeoff of US Airways Flight 1549 through the vindication of the second-guessed aviator — is every bit the cinematic version of Joe Friday expected from Eastwood, clinically taut and didactic. There’s even the requisite mournful piano score for Sullenberger as he pensively slumps over in the shower after dreaming he’d ended up in an office building instead of atop a nearly frozen river. Scenes like this would have a shred of resonance if they weren’t as predictable as, say, “Sully” being a movie about a guy named Sully.

The film’s actual drama comes from the doubts Sullenberger fields from government inquisitors, but there’s only about 30 minutes of that — folks in suits recounting airspeed data and engine mechanics that’ll fly over most viewers’ heads. Never fear: Hanks’ Sully quickly, confidently explains things in simple terms to the bureaucrats (played by Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn), how their engineers and simulations are all hooey compared to the four decades of experience he used for the watery touchdown. “I eyeballed it,” he proclaims. Gosh, shouldn’t that be good enough for them?

Where the film does succeed is conveying how the landing — did we mention it was miraculous?— truly shook up the pilot. A taxi driver nearly runs him over while jogging, shouting, “What’s the matter with you?” not knowing the answer is Post-Traumatic Stress. This gives Eastwood license to fill the time with Sully repeatedly envisioning his Airbus A320 in a fireball explosion. The visual effects by Michael Owens’ team are realistic, albeit their ability to startle fades with each repetition.

“Sully” stretches what could and should have been an hour-long TV doc into a film with two flashback scenes of our hero, learning to fly while growing up in Texas and his time in the Air Force in the 1970s. There’s value in trying to show how Chesley became “Sully,” yet these scenes don’t add nearly enough context for how much of an aviation safety expert Sullenberger was when he landed on the Hudson.

The film also under-uses Laura Linney as Sullenberger’s wife, Lorrie, who is relegated to being a voice on the other end of a phone in a few scenes— just another distraction for Sully as he fights for his reputation. Lorrie’s diminishment to such a perfunctory role is doubly damning when you consider how much screen time is devoted to strangers— bartenders, makeup artists, hotel workers— fawning over Sully. Either this man contained his crisis with little support from his wife, or the filmmakers simply didn’t value her as a character. Only one is the likely truth, but both feel awkward.

Though Hanks is superb in translating the extreme levels of self-effacement in the script into his performance, few others really get a chance to stand out. Aaron Eckhart (as Sullenberger’s co-pilot Jeff Skiles) is one of them, though his sidekick work is mostly limited to being recalcitrant and defensively emotive in any scene that doesn’t end with a punchline.

Credit Eastwood for getting in his jabs amid otherwise workmanlike storytelling by highlighting the insufferability of local TV news reporters, who repeatedly paint the scene on the Hudson as a life-or-death struggle long after the danger has passed. But the film is only fleetingly interested in probing how the media’s coverage truly affected the world as it is today, where Sully’s an unquestioned universal hero (He’s penned not only a memoir, but also a cash-in followup on leadership billed as a modern-day “Profiles in Courage”). Given Eastwood’s antipathy toward modern news media, “Sully” is, at times, a half-baked critique of how the news can torture a man by placing him on the highest of pedestals.

What you are left with beyond the drama-bereft pseudo-witch hunt is the recreation of Flight 1549: The pilots’ maneuvers, the passengers’ panic and the flight attendants’ chanting of “Heads down, stay down” as they brace for impact. It’s competent, compelling stuff yet could have been done by any director, give or take the mostly unnecessary vignettes of the few passengers singled out to humanize the rest of those on board.

As with a lot of Eastwood’s films, there’s the sense more could be said beyond the paternal, “lemme-tell-ya-about-this-man” lecture “Sully” is. If a lifetime of experience is what Sullenberger credits for pulling off his unprecedented feat, it’s not on display here, at least not to the extent that it would be impactful. Instead, the viewer’s expected to hear the old guy tell it like it is and accept i t— you decide whether that’s Sullenberger or Eastwood.

“Sully” is rated PG-13. Running time: One hour, 36 minutes. Two and a half stars out of five.