Sully is literally marred by explosions. They are the nightmares of the title character—pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), who successfully landed a crashing plane into the Hudson River in 2009—a streaking jet plane striking into Times Square. These are the volatile internal demons of an outwardly calm man.
Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial outing works on two levels of conflict. There is this internal struggle, and there is the closed-door politics of the man’s otherwise heroic actions. The divide between the two, stylistically, is two different movies. It is arguably more effective to see the consternation on Hanks’ face than it is to see visual manifestations of the character’s thoughts tear through buildings. It shows a surprising lack of confidence in the A-lister who headlines this biopic.
On the other side, the external conflict is notably superficial. The director does little to hide the eponymous character’s heroism, yet the narrative still tries shallowly to fool the viewer into thinking that perhaps he made an errant decision in his rescue.
The story of Sully jumps temporally with little to no narrative motivation. Flashbacks are instigated by mere gazes from Hanks. This is not a bad thing, as it is a tolerable tactic, but it can be jarring and unnecessary. Bissecting the most impactful scene, for instance, is a strange move. As intense and emotionally charged as it is, it would have been more effective if kept intact. Not to mention that the attempts to flesh out a backstory for Sullenberger serve little narrative purpose and are dropped quickly.
The sequence of the plane crash itself is directed with immense care. The editing here is pitch perfect, the shot structure simple but all-encompassing. The meager attempts to humanize those on-board is a wasted effort, but this does not fully detract from the scenes. These scenes are far and away the best moments in the film, even if it separates Hanks from the fore.
Hanks comes out with another tour-de-force turn as the eponymous pilot. Capturing a reserved, mild-mannered professional type is not easy to do in a way that is adequately compelling. Hanks knows how to add layers to such an internalizing figure. This movie would be nothing in a lesser actor’s hands.
Eastwood’s crisp directing style is in full force in Sully. The film is clean and precise with every shot. While losing something in its lavish fantasy shots, this film is still a tightly constructed machine.
Still, Sully does fall into a similar trap as Eastwood’s last, American Sniper. There is a sanitation that comes with making a character study the depicts its character as a pristine individual. With this story, it is hard to avoid such a positive perspective, but Eastwood’s insistence on touting his protagonists as symbols of American exceptionalism is somewhat problematic on a cinematic level. It breeds an air of melodrama and over-sentimentality that can threaten to ruin the tone of the entire film. With Sully, it is understandable to take this tone, although it does beat a dead horse.
Sully does its due diligence capturing the character in all his nuance. It is a movie that is well constructed and heralded by its fantastic lead actor. Still, it cannot avoid being a film trying to reach for more story than it has to work with. The sequence depicting the noteworthy event itself is easily the most enrapturing of the entire film, leaving the rest feeling like white noise. Hanks alone is left to push through the static, and he does so expertly in a performance that is sure to get award season buzz.
If you look closely, you will see in an early scene a shot of a New York street in which a cab has an ad for the 2015 film The Revenant on it. Come on, Clint! First you work with a fake baby, and now this! These are oversights and continuity errors that should not be missed in a final product.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)