Author’s note: If you need a spoiler warning for this film, please never read another review again.
Sully is an odd movie in that the stakes are simultaneously low and high. High because of the 155 souls aboard US Airways flight 1549 as it plunged toward the Hudson River; low because we know that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) saves every last one of them.
The drama is entirely manufactured. In part, it’s built by manipulating time and space so that the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation takes place wholly in the immediate aftermath of the water landing. Multiple simulations are undertaken by computers and human pilots alike, the latter of which are played live at a public hearing. The NTSB is painted as a group of conniving bureaucrats trying to pin the blame for the water landing on Sully and his copilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). They are committed to the idea that the plane could have either returned to LaGuardia or another nearby airport rather than splashing down in the water.
This is, frankly, a bit ludicrous. While one has to accept a bit of tinkering with timelines in a film like this, the machinations of the NTSB and their remarkable hostility toward Sully strain credulity. Think of it in terms of David Mamet’s three questions for generating drama: "Who wants what? What happens if they don’t get it? Why now?" The answer to the first question appears to be "the NTSB wants to find a scapegoat." But what happens if the NTSB doesn’t get that? Why now? It makes no sense. As a result, we receive not drama but information.
Less ludicrous is the other way Sully manufactures drama. It too is a bit of a cheat, but at least it’s a cinematically compelling one. As the film opens, we see Sully piloting the plane. But something’s wrong, the skyline is too close. He’s trying to make it back to the airport—and he doesn’t. All of a sudden the screen is a replay of eight or so years earlier, an airplane slamming into skyscrapers, a fireball engulfing the streets of New York.
And then Sully awakes. It’s a trick that’s played a few times on viewers, one that works because of the flashback-heavy structure of the film. Sully begins after the flight has landed safely and the captain is being interrogated, jumping backward in time to reconstruct the not-so-fateful day as it happened. Sully’s suffering from a form of PTSD—he’s second-guessing himself, imagining that he got things wrong, that the world thinks him a fraud.
It’s a crisis of faith as much as anything else, a reminder that what we’re seeing is a filmed life of a saint, an abbreviated vita. Saint Sully is cast in an almost explicitly religious light. He performs The Miracle on the Hudson. He questions his own faith and must win over the Doubting Thomases in the NTSB. The masses praise his name and stretch their hands to touch our touched-by-God hero, saying, "have a blessed day" as they do.
Hanks is the perfect choice to play the unflappable Sully, given that he is the Patron Saint of Quiet Calm and Confidence in Crisis. Even Saint Sully’s prayer—"We did our job"—seems perfectly fitting for Hanks. Bridge of Spies, Captain Phillips, Road to Perdition, Apollo 13: If you’re in a tight spot and need someone with a cool head to extricate you from your troubles, there are few men you’d rather have in your corner than Tom Hanks.
Director Clint Eastwood brings his spare, understated style to the story. I’m not sure it’s a perfect fit, since it gives the proceedings a docudrama feel that the deviations from history suggest the film might not quite deserve. Eastwood does an efficient job, however, wrapping things up in an hour and a half.
Despite all of Sully’s issues—its ginned-up drama; the fact that it calls to mind a medieval hagiography; our knowledge of the climactic plane crash’s ultimate outcome—it’s still an entertaining piece of work. The flashback structure helps maintain the momentum, and there’s something endearing about a hero who knows enough to doubt himself in private while remaining confident enough to defend himself in public.