Right now Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks both share the quality of unfussily ‘getting the job done’ with Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the subject of their new film Sully. Hanks still has the understated power to move audiences, and Eastwood can skilfully handle action and tension, but beyond a few gripping scenes, it’s difficult to see Sully as more than a supremely expensively constructed episode of Air Crash Investigation.
Based on the true story of the Hudson River water landing of US Airways flight 1549 in 2009, the film takes place in the aftermath of the famous incident. Sully is struggling to come to terms with what could have gone wrong and with being hailed as a hero worldwide for what he sees as just doing his job. The fact that he’s also being investigated by aviation authorities, who want to find out if he could have safely landed on a runway instead, adds to the pressure.
It’s made clear that the audience are meant to be firmly behind Sully fairly immediately – from the piano score to Hanks’ sympathetically shot grandfatherly face. From then on the film sets the audience, the crew, the passengers and the nation against the suits, the money men, the corporates cast as trying to bring Sully down. Here, Eastwood continues his directorial fascination with getting underneath the skin of ‘American Hero’ type figures. But unlike his other – albeit flawed – films with this focus, there are no interesting shades of grey in the character of Sully. While professional skill and zeal masked darkness and obsession in the likes of J. Edgar (2011) and American Sniper (2014), this film’s flashbacks to earlier in Sully’s life don’t provide any real insight into the guy. They simply make it clear that – like the story as a whole – there’s just not that much more to tell.
Even though the audience most likely doesn’t know the outcome of the investigation, this ‘courtroom drama’ aspect of the film has virtually zero tension at all. What holds the attention is really all about the plane. As the investigation takes place and he, almost zombie-like, tours the media circuit, Sully is haunted by visions of losing control. An opening nightmare of crashing the plane into a building makes 9/11 parallels unmistakable, and the actual water landing itself is also replayed from multiple perspectives. We experience it with the crew and passengers, the emergency services, ferry crews, and eventually Sully and his equally impressively moustachioed co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). A plane in peril rarely fails to compel on the big screen, but Eastwood expertly handles the different action scenes. Despite knowing the outcome, the reconstructions are the best part of the film, gripping and even bringing a lump to the throat at times. Eastwood directs as well and skilfully as would be expected from someone with his experience, but these scenes aren’t enough to hang a film on. Outside the fuselage the film can experience drag even at a short 86 minutes.
Hanks, looking as old as he ever has, plays it very subdued, his voice soft and calm throughout. It’s a performance so low-key that it’s often difficult to recognise what he’s actually doing at all. There are flashes of deep emotion in his eyes, but he’s not as vulnerable as he’s been in recent performances like Captain Phillips (2013). This is a role that’s frankly not a stretch for him, and it’s maybe time to challenge himself a bit more. Of the rest of the limited main cast, which includes a predictably excellent Laura Linney (who’s given the thankless task of doing all her acting over the phone), it’s Echkart’s character that comes out feeling most alive.
Sully fails to get to grips with tackling the idea of everyday heroism, and of what it means to be a hero in the world today. At a time when the heroes of Hollywood movies more regularly destroy things than save them, Sully could have had a lot more to say.
Sully is out in cinemas from 8 September through Roadshow Films.