Tuesday, September 13, 2016

SULLY: Bracing For An Impact That Never Comes

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

SULLY (Dir. Clint Eastwood, 2016)

The question that Clint Eastwood’s 35th film as director asks is whether Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made the right decision when landed his airplane, US Airways Flight 1549, in the Hudson River instead of trying to take it back to LaGuardia Airport like he was instructed by air traffic control on January 15th, 2009.

That a distinguished grey haired and mustached Tom Hanks, who topped the Reader’s Digest poll of the Most Trusted People in America a few years ago, is playing Sully, makes it hard to think the guy didn’t do the right thing, but there’s an effective darkness in the film’s first third in which the celebrated pilot has visions of his plane crashing into Manhattan skyscrapers.

Sully and his co-pilot, First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) face off with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigators portrayed by Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan and Anna Gunn, who are very skeptical about the Captain’s actions as the flight computers show that the left engine was still operational.

To backtrack a bit, like the film does as we see the event dubbed by the media “The Miracle on the Hudson” in flashbacks from multiple angles, shortly after takeoff, the plane hit a flock of geese causing both jet engines to lose power. In the next 208 seconds (just under 4 minutes), Sully and Skiles are put to the extremely stressful test on how to safely land the plane. After determining that they can’t make it to any nearby runways, Sully tells the controllers “we’re going into the Husdon,” and tells the passengers to “brace for impact.”

Eastwood’s film is workmanlike as is his norm. It’s a solid, straight forward narrative that takes us through several perspectives, but even at its tidy 96 minute running time, it feels a bit padded as there’s only really a half hour, at the most, of story to work from.

This is largely because despite being based on the autobiography “Highest Duty” by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, in real life Sully and Skiles weren’t really put through the ringer by the NTSB. Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay makes the NTSB the villains of the piece which is transparent in that the antagonistic characters played by O’Malley, Sheridan, and Gunn don’t have any real life counterparts.

This element feels as forced as the river landing Sully is forced to make.

And as Sully’s spouse, Laura Linney is given the thankless concerned wife on the phone role in probably the most blatant use of the trope since Laila Robins in PLANE, TRAINS, & AUTOMOBILES.

So the fabricated conflict over whether Sully is a hero or a fraud (as Katie Couric puts it in a cameo) doesn’t serve up the tension it’s working for. It’s American treasure Tom Hanks! He saved Private Ryan! He helped get Apollo 13 down from space! He fought the forces of evil in those dang DA VINCI CODE movies. And, as my friend William Fonvielle, of Filmville, pointed out, he played the nicest record executive in history, so of course the guy is a hero who made the right decision which saved the lives of all of the airplane flight’s 155 crew and passengers! 

How could he not be? I mean, there's only been a few characters he's played that were untrustable (the guy in THE LADYKILLERS and the mobster in THE ROAD TO PERDITION are the ones that come to my mind at the moment).

So we just wait for the board hearing climax in which we watch several computer flight simulations, with the “human factor” the Sully fights to be accounted for, to get the inevitable feel good ending – complete with a quip by our hero taking us to the obligatory end credits accompanied by footage of the real Captain Sully.

Somehow Eastwood has made an entire film that’s anticlimactic. I kept waiting for him to build something on top of what really happened that fateful day 7 years ago, but beyond the basic facts of the event, he just artificially tries to tease extra drama out of the aftermath.

It’s a fine looking film with flawless visual effects and sturdy performances by its leads - Hanks is uniformly terrific, while Eckhart, though not given much of a persona apart from being a strong member of Team Sully, does a good job of holding up that massive mustache. 

It's unfortunate that it feels like an A-list version of a TV movie. Hanks, Eckhart, and Eastwood cue into a kind of cornball gravitas that makes it mildly likable, but its flimsy attempt to give the plot more pushback made me brace for an impact that never came.

More later...

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