Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sully: Review

A theme Clint Eastwood has returned to time and again over the course of his career is heroism, whether through his roles as outlaws and lawmen who cling to an idea of frontier justice, or through films which dissect what it means to be heroic. Sully might appear to be another exploration of conflicted heroism in the vein of Unforgiven and Flags of Our Fathers. Yet, this film doth protest too much. The more Chesley Sullenberger shrugs off praise, the more Eastwood seems to want to shower him with it.

In 2009, Sullenberger, a commercial pilot with US Airways, landed a plane with two malfunctioning engines on the Hudson River in New York City. By all accounts, it was an enormously skilful bit of flying, backed up by a whole lot of luck and the timely response of the authorities, who reached the passengers before the cold or the water claimed any lives. Eastwood does an efficient, tense rendering of the flight, malfunction and landing, but once the passengers are out on the water and we’re being taken through every detail of the rescue, there’s a sense that the film has run out of ideas.

The film uses as a framing device an official investigation into the circumstances of the crash. Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles are brought before a committee headed by a man so needling and lacking in worshipfulness that it’s all too clear where this is headed. Even then, Eastwood can’t resist having someone tell Sully every five minutes or so that he’s a true hero. The director of Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby—films in which minor gestures carried tremendous weight—appears to have lost confidence in his audience. The shot of a man in a high-rise watching the plane fly dangerously low over New York brings to mind the 9/11 attacks, but the effect is ruined when Sully is later told that there hasn’t been much to cheer about in the city, especially where planes are involved.

The problem with Sully is that nothing apart from the incident at its centre is particularly interesting: not the good captain’s financial problems, or the flashback to another tricky landing he made, or the committee hearings. By the time we’re shown the entire flight and landing for the second time—and for no good reason—it’s clear that Eastwood is so enamored of his subject that he assumes the audience is as well. Hanks does all he can, but there are few nuances in the writing for him to explore. He’s trying to play a human being, while Eastwood is attempting to film a legend.

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