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Movie Review: #Sully

Sully is a competent but unrewarding disaster film.

Review by Matt Cummings

If the worst Summer movie season in recent memory has you hungry for more competent fare, Sully might be the perfect meal. But don't expect to be blown away or even moved by its rather pedestrian, paint-by-the-numbers old school blandness. It's competent and likeable, but fails to stir anyone's appreciation for a heroic feat that doesn't really need a movie to tell it.

For 40-year flight veteran Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), piloting has been in his blood since he was a teen. An air combat veteran, he's settled down into the unremarkable world of commercial passenger planes, shuttling passengers for US Airways. But when his flight loses both engines after multiple bird strikes, he's forced to land in the Hudson River. The rescue becomes a worldwide sensation and makes Sully a national hero, but members of the National Traffic Safety Board aren't exactly sold. They claim that Sully had made a critical error in judgement and that he could have landed back at LaGuardia. His co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) believes otherwise, and thus a line is drawn in the water between the crew and uptight government types. Overwhelmed by the media attention, Sully also struggles with vivid nightmare scenarios while his wife (Laura Linney) is stuck at their home behind a wall of television camera trucks. With his reputation on the line and pressure building to admit wrongdoing, Sully must brave an NTSB inquiry that seems ready to persecute him and thus destroy his remarkable accomplishment.

Anyone going in to Sully expecting to be rewarded with another powerful history lesson ala American Sniper or even Bridge of Spies should look elsewhere. First, it's only 95 minutes, which might be Hanks' shortest film in 20 years. That brisk runtime doesn't give us enough time to play out the various sub stories that are not really that interesting to begin with. One of these revolves around Sully's side gig as a flight safety contractor that he plans to start up once he retires. There's just enough of this to make us wonder if a scene was cut, but not enough to wrap up that portion of the story. Why include if you don't intend to finish telling it? Blame Director Clint Eastwood for that error, because it feels like filler, especially when considering the potential this film ignores. As much as Sully is about the courage, quick thinking, and skill of the pilot, I know there must have been other interesting perspectives that Eastwood could have used. And while we do see some of these, the script by Writer Todd Komarnick is clearly centered on Sully vs the NTSB. Whether the drama produced during those investigations is accurate or not, things still feel manufactured, as if the heroism somehow was just not enough.

But at its heart, Sully is merely competent, mostly well-cast, and only modestly impactful. I'm not sure how audiences will react when they see a commercial jet plunge into buildings during Sully's nightmares, but those are the most stirring moments of the movie. That, and the plane's actual landing in the Hudson River are special, not because the CGI looks so appealing but because it's really at the heart of the matter. Did Sully have enough thrust to return to the airport? Was the NTSB will to sacrifice the skill of the pilot for the loss of the plane? Unfortunately, none of this plays out too effectively, as Eastwood really paints by the numbers: show this scene, act out this moment, say something meaningful, move on to the next scene. Visually speaking, it's a pretty dull affair, as Eastwood and long-time collaborator Cinematographer Tom Stern fail to push the historical sub-genre beyond "plane/water/hero/inquisition/validation." By the time that the actual disaster plays out, we're wondering why it took so long to get here.

Hanks - for all his stature and good-natured respect in Hollywood - has now played the same type of character in at least different films. It's impossible to tell them apart, and even his upcoming return to Robert Langdon doesn't promise to be anything different. That steadiness of return might be appealing for some, as Hanks is one of the best in the business. But when Sully, James Donovan, and Captain Phillips all morph into the hero-next-door, it becomes difficult to see Hanks the actor any longer. Eckhart is easily one of Hollywood's least-appreciated, as we think the industry just doesn't know what to do with him. Still he's an effective Skiles, but we know little of him by film's end. Why does he come to trust Sully, when all he appears to be is the co-pilot? What's his backstory that brought him to work with Sully for that moment? That same sort of questioning also brings down Linney, who apparently never leaves home and worries from afar. Like I said, so much potential lies in these side stories that you want to kick Eastwood for missing them.

Finally, there is a serious lack of on-screen danger here: the plane lands, people jump off, others come to help, the day is saved in just 24 minutes. It's such a tame experience that you wonder if it even happened that way. The lack of real conflict here is painfully apparent and none of those side stories ever intersect Sully. He's there to save the day and his passengers and crew are there to be set up so that Sully can save them. I won't dare say that Sullenberger deserves a hero's medal for saving all 155 souls, but this extraordinary feat feels...well...ordinary. But, it is great to see humanity work together as well as they did once the disaster unfolds; no one pushes or shoves to get out of the plane, and that spirit of cooperation feels genuinely warm.

For those seeking a super-fire winner to the Summer's worst selection of films in recent memory, Sully arrives with its messages of sacrifice, heroism and team, blending them into a competent and likable concoction. But for those ready for real Oscar contenders, this one just doesn't do it, not because of scale but due to Eastwood's lazy camera and pacing. By the time we're done, the impact of Sullenberger's achievement feels somehow lessened.

Sully is rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language and has a runtime of 95 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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