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‘Sully’: Compelling biopic stumbles but avoids a fall

Written By | Sep 25, 2016

WASHINGTON, September 23, 2016 – Clint Eastwood’s compelling new film “Sully” is never coy about what it wants to accomplish. This new Warner Bros. release is very much concerned with how to define a hero, although there’s never any question that within the context of this film, Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) is a hero.

That’s to be expected. The heroic status of Hanks’ real life counterpart was pretty much a given after he successfully landed an Airbus A320 on the Hudson River with every passenger and crewmember surviving the harrowing ordeal.

This isn’t new territory for Clint Eastwood as a director. The concept of heroes and heroism has clearly been a driving force behind much of his work behind the camera, and was perhaps most effective when he directed and starred in his 1992 masterpiece, “Unforgiven.”

Sully (Tom Hanks) tries to wrestle his free-falling Airbus jet into the water. (Screen capture from YouTube video of "Sully" trailer)

Sully (Tom Hanks) tries to wrestle his free-falling Airbus jet into the water. (Screen capture from YouTube video of “Sully” trailer)

The heroism of Eastwood’s characters generally tends to be self-evident. They don’t really have to prove themselves to be heroes. It’s just that they adhere to some code of personal honor and justice. They simply exist that way and it’s up to everyone else to catch up to them if they can.

More often than not, an Eastwood hero must constantly confront forces outside his immediate control—forces that seem to exist solely to chip away at the hero’s code and status. Sometimes those forces are existential, while at other times they are quite real.

The firm but sometimes convoluted moral code of the Eastwood hero frequently contributes to the notable artistic quality of his films. Yet the idea that an outside force can and perhaps must be confronted can also reveal upsetting aspects of the Eastwood style. We see both sides of this directorial coin in “Sully.”

The details surrounding the real life Sully are well known to the general public. Chesley Sullenberger was the captain of an Airbus A320 that took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport carrying its crew and 155 passengers, bound for Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina. The flight had barely left the ground when the plane’s engines encountered and sucked in a flock of geese, resulting in dual engine failure and likely disaster just minutes after take off.

But thinking fast and working through a complex mixture of experience and instinct, Sullenberger ended up successfully landing the A320 on the Hudson River without the loss of a single life and with only a few minor injuries recorded. The U.S. Coast guard and New York rescue personnel quickly arrived on the watery scene, retrieved the passengers and crew and brought them ashore.

The event in its totality still seems unbelievable, both for the actual cause of the jet’s malfunction and the fact that everyone survived the experience despite the considerable odds against them.

The flight and its rescue are covered in some detail in Eastwood’s film, which also does an excellent job parceling out key information at a measured pace. Instead of providing one giant, climactic scene at any one point in the movie, the action and aftermath of the story’s central event is distributed in bits and pieces.

As the drama surrounding that event is jockeyed back and forth with other scenes before and after the central time line, the tension of the film steadily increases each time Sully and first mate Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are seen in the cockpit. This highly effective buildup of audience tension is fascinating and a tribute to the film’s impact on its viewers, given that there’s never any confusion as to the outcome of the flight and that the move never treats audience like they don’t actually know what happened.

The reason the tension buildup works is that we’re privy to the tension going on inside Sully’s mind, the effect of which is far more concerning that anything that might have physically happened to him. In fact, the first time the image of a plane is shown in the opening moments of the film. Here, we glimpse a possible scenario in which Sully’s plane crashes directly into the heart of New York City. This strongly evokes still-fresh memories of the 9/11 disaster, and initially seems to be a ham-fisted way to start out the film. Yet the imagery also serves to set the table for Sully’s ensuing PTSD issues which arose following this fateful flight.

Throughout the immediate denouement of the jet’s watery crash landing and moving forward in time, people constantly tell Sully that he is in fact a hero. But each time someone proclaims it, his sense of self collapses inward.

It all has something to do with the dichotomy that exists in Sully’s mind. The public believes him to be an extraordinary and courageous individual who went out of his way to puzzle out and then do the right thing. But Sully himself believes he was just doing his job, which is how he perceives the event.

To Sully, those 208 seconds between the birds hitting the plane’s engine’s to the moment he and his co-pilot landed the jet on the Hudson were the worst moments in his entire life, the time that everything in his life went to hell in a split second. For Sully, it doesn’t really matter that everything turned out okay. Inside his own head, all he can think about is how horribly wrong it all could have gone.

For that reason, every time friends, family, co-workers, and random strangers exclaim what a hero Sully is, such praise only deepens his sense of isolation.

This is where Eastwood uses images of the vast, impersonal City of New York to great effect. Since Sully must remain in the city to participate in government hearings concerning his ill-fated flight, he’s trapped in a locality that on one hand is familiar. But it isn’t his.

In the city in the aftermath of the flight, scenes are filmed from the ground looking up, making the massive NYC skyline seem like a cage every time Sully ventures out of his hotel room. Sully is likewise trapped by the public perception of who he is that’s created by opposing forces. His accepted heroic stature has taken him out of his own life and into another to the extent that he may possibly never get his real life back. As these internal and external forces start battling inside Sully’s head, we encounter Sully and this film is at their absolute best.

What threatens to tear the film apart, however is when the film shifts emphasis from the heroic crash-landing and rescue scenario to the Federal investigation of its aftermath. In this very different second act, Sully confronts determined external forces as the film does a 180 degree, transforming itself from a personal and largely internal drama to something more familiar and clichéd.

As the audience has already seen from the quick cuts during the opening moments of the film, Sully and co-pilot Skiles are pursued in the aftermath of the crash-landing by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). In real life NTSB investigations of airline crashes are a routine part of that business landscape. The NTSB has to check out what went wrong on the plane, ranging from the mechanical to the personal level not only to determine the likely cause of the crash, but in so doing, to understand what liabilities will exist as a result. The contextual problem with the film, though, is the transparent way the NTSB is overtly transformed into a cadre of villains for Sully to figuratively slay.

The film’s depiction of the NTSB feels inorganic from the start. “Sully’s” NTSB investigators seem intent on proving Sully was guilty of wrongdoing rather than actually going about the kind of science-based analysis that would normally prevail.

At every turn, the movie’s NTSB officials act like a thorn in the side of both Sullenberger and the film itself, derailing “Sully’s” apparent momentum in the process. Every time the three interchangeable goons from the NTSB show up, it takes the movie out of Sully’s head and hammers the audience over its head with a blunt object to remind everyone that Sully should be respected and treated like a hero. It flies in the face of what the film had been so carefully crafting in its treatment of Sully’s internal drama. In the process, this change of direction dulls the film’s positive, creative energy.

Often, when biopics begin to stalls or feel fake is the point at which the filmmakers attempt to either fabricate or manipulate the truth in a direction that never feels quite real. That’s exactly what happens here as this movie’s plot shifts from Sully’s inscape to Sully vs. the NTSB.

In the film’s final scene, the movie bludgeons the audience with exchanges that strongly recall the worst and phoniest courtroom scenes ever seen in any movie or TV drama. The reason we get this feeling is because the film’s depiction of an evil, adversarial NTSB is mostly false.

In reality, the NTSB was pretty much on Sully’s side from the very beginning. In the movie, when the NTSB’s projections showed how absolutely wrong Sully was to “endanger” the lives of 155 people, the real projections showed that Sully actually did the right thing. This scenario doesn’t necessarily feel false given the context of Eastwood’s previous films. But it absolutely feels forced.

The upshot is that the entire narrative thread involving the NTSB ends up stalemating the best parts of this movie. It also plays out the strange persecution complex that has gripped Eastwood over the last several years and plays against the film’s otherwise carefully crafted character of Chesley Sully. In this film’s narrative, Sully is the only person who can defend himself. He blithely ignores help from all sides, the better to fight a tangible (if largely false) villain that “Sully’s” writers and filmmakers pretty much created from scratch and sometimes out of whole cloth.

Returning to the overriding importance of heroism in most Eastwood films, heroism here isn’t defined simply by the fact Sully managed to land a plane relatively safely on a river, saving everyone in his charge by confronting unforeseen and unique obstacles. Instead, the idea of heroism in this film seems to be Sully’s bold confrontation of who or what is out to get him.

In Eastwood’s version of the events, what Sully did in extremis is almost beside the point, because it’s more important that true heroes are also de facto beyond reproach. Fortunately, the insightful and compelling treatment of Sully’s inner turmoil, as capably interpreted by Tom Hanks, elevates this film to a higher level—one that does not permit it to succumb to baser urges.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.