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Sully

September 9, 2016
Sully

I’d like to start by saying that, by all accounts, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being one could want in the cockpit of an airplane. If anyone merits the kind of warm glow that comes from being portrayed by Tom Hanks, it’s him. I have no complaints about the man himself, or even the way he is portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s latest hagiopic, Sully.

Setting up the NTSB investigators as his antagonists, on the other hand, does rankle a bit. From the get-go, it is made clear that these people are Out To Get Him. And they’re led by Mike O’Malley, who at his most sympathetic still has a burly, Boston-Irish chip on his shoulder. And here he’s anything but sympathetic to the case of Capt. Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).

I’m sure it must feel uncomfortable to be asked such pointed questions in the wake of a traumatic experience like having to put a jet plane down into the Hudson River. Sully is still reeling, jolted awake by nightmares of trying to cut across Manhattan to make it back to LaGuardia, and going down in the middle of the city. But if he’s half as generous as he seems, he’d be the first to admit that the investigation was important, and the panel bore him no actual malice.

But what else can we expect from Eastwood, steeped in the American myth of the lone savior cowboy, but to view any regulatory body as nothing more than peevish, small-minded bureaucrats. That he’s smart enough not to go overboard in this characterization only makes it easier for audiences to swallow his version of the story whole, without questioning how it squares with reality. I certainly never heard anyone seriously questioning Sullenberger’s version of events at the time. And even the most cursory skimming of the investigation’s timeline shows that all evidence pointed to both engines having failed, while Todd Komarnicki’s script shows nothing but skepticism until both engines have been recovered.

To offer the benefit of the doubt, it’s possible that Eastwood didn’t see this as an opportunity to stick one to government regulators; that may have only given him subconscious encouragement to tell the story this way. No, the real motivation for trumping up the mean ol’ bureaucrats is more likely that without them the story is dull as dishwater. At least an antagonistic investigation recalls the arc of Robert Zemeckis’ Flight, though the landing itself isn’t nearly so spectacular. And before you point out that Sully’s landing was something that really happened and that it’s not meant to be an action sequence, ask yourself why they bothered shooting and releasing this movie in IMAX format.

The landing can only take up so much of the story anyway; as they point out repeatedly, it only lasted 208 seconds. We can get some more mileage by repeating it a few times, as Sully turns the events over in his mind. To Komarnicki’s credit, each time is presented as a dream or a memory, rather than a literal, “what really happened” flashback. That is, until the climactic, confrontational public hearing, where we get one last pass as everyone listens to the cockpit voice recorder for the first time, and any Rashōmon-like potential to explore the shifting, subjective nature of truth is squandered.

Aside from the landing, the morning of January 15 was dominated by the rescue efforts, as everyone from NYPD helicopters and SCUBA divers to water taxi pilots converged on the downed plane. But by the time we see this we already know the outcome. Even if you don’t remember the story, the movie itself reminds you from the beginning that all 155 passengers and crew survived. And so the rescue sequence spends its time narratively treading water. It’s clearly meant to be a heartstring-tug, but we don’t get nearly enough time with passengers like the ones played by Valerie Mahaffey and Sam Huntington to really care about them, especially since we know what’s going to happen.

We see that same glancing, superficial approach again in the other underdeveloped line: Sully’s history as a pilot. The script is nominally based on Capt. Sullenberger’s autobiography, Highest Duty, and so a couple of his reveries are not to the events of Flight 1549 but to events from his past. But there are only two short scenes like this, and they hardly play into any greater structure that helps inform the man’s character. So they just sit there as inert lumps of filler.

And so we come back to this: what Chesley Sullenberger did that cold January morning was an incredible feat, but there’s not much to it that wasn’t common knowledge already. The only “untold story” here is the one that seems ginned up to push an old man’s political hobbyhorse. If Eastwood and Komarnicki really wanted to tell Sullenberger’s story beyond that one morning, they could have gone into the fact that US Airways had slashed his salary and gutted his pension. But then that would paint a corporation as malicious and short-sighted, rather than the government, and we can’t have that now can we?

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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