*****THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!! THIS IS A SPOILER-FREE REVIEW!!!****
Estimated Reading Time: 208 Seconds
My Rating : 2 out of 5 Stars
My Recommendation : Skip it in the theatre. If you are a fan of Eastwood and Hanks, see it for free on Cable or Netflix.
Sully, written by Todd Kormarnicki and directed by two-time Academy Award winner Clint Eastwood, is the story of US Airways pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger who famously crash landed flight 1549 into the Hudson River in January of 2009. The film is based on Sullenberger's autobiography Highest Duty, and stars two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks in the lead role.
Sully, like many of director Eastwoods films in recent years, has some good in it and a whole lotta bad. Let's start with the good. The plane sequences where we see flight 1549 crash into the Hudson river are very impactful and exceedingly well done. It is difficult to watch those sequences and not have a visceral reaction to them. It is every airline passenger's nightmare and darkest fear to go through what the passengers of flight 1549 went through, and when you add to that the fact that 8 years before Sully's aviation heroics, low flying planes over New York city didn't crash harmlessly into the Hudson river, they crashed violently into the World Trade Center resulting in thousands dead, it is easy to understand how those passengers, and viewers of this film, would be unnerved. This recipe of recent history and the magic of cinema make for some heart pounding scenes of flight 1549's two hundred and eight seconds in the air. It is when the film is on the ground (and water) that it wanders aimlessly and sputters hopelessly.
Besides the plane sequences, another bright spot in the film is Tom Hanks. Hanks is not the most daring actor in the world. In the last few decades he has fallen into a lazy pattern of repeatedly playing characters with an almost saintly dignity which often times borders on arrogance. He does the same thing in Sully, but to his credit he does it very, very well. Hanks has spent a career refining this exact type of performance and his years of experience come to fruition as Sully. The Sully character is one part Captain Philips, one part Captain Miller from Saving Private Ryan and one part James Donovan from Bridge of Spies. If you've seen those films then you've already met Sully, now he is just wearing a different uniform. Hanks work in Sully is not a model of artistry or creative genius, but rather one of experience and comfort with craft.
Now on to the bad. First off, there is actually no dramatic story here at all. Sully is one of those films that isn't really about anything at all except justifying its own existence…and separating people, namely older audiences, from their hard earned money. It is like a headline with no actual story below it. In other words there is no there, there in Sully. It is a meatless sandwich. Eastwood tries to make the narrative about Sully battling the evil, mustache twirling bureaucracy of the NTSB as they try to stifle and punish good old American individuality and heroism, but not surprisingly that storyline falls impotently flat.
Sully also tries to be about the relentlessness of the media and the difficulty of being caught in the public eye…but that too is a rather dramatically flaccid narrative. It seems an odd thing for Sully to complain about being in the public eye when he voluntarily goes on tv to be interviewed by Katie Couric and followed that up by going on Letterman. He didn't have a gun to his head when he did those interviews. A good strategy to avoid the harsh spotlight of the public eye is to keep your head down and stay off of television. (As an aside…I have a very simple rule of thumb for any film. Namely…if a film has a scene where a gaggle of reporters and camera people hound the main character and he or she has to plow his way through those reporters and camera people on the way out of his or her home, office, hotel, or courtroom, then that film is a horrendous pile of steaming poop. Most any film that has that scene in it is a horrible film - I'm looking at you Gone Girl, you piece of crap!! Keep an eye out for those type of scenes next time you watch a movie, and 99 times out of 100, you'll see that I am right.)
The only real purpose of Sully is to show the dazzling effects of the plane crash, which stated before are excellent…and to drum up the primal American fear around 9-11. It is no accident the film was released on the weekend of the 15th anniversary of 9-11 and has multiple scenes of planes crashing into the New York skyline. Sully seems to be pining for that feeling of connection and 'we're all in this together' that allegedly permeated the country after the 9-11 attacks. The character of Sully, or should I say the caricature of Sully, is that of the perfect American, heroic, noble and selfless, who is hounded by the twin evils of government bureaucracy and the liberal media. Much like Eastwood's last film, American Sniper, this film would have been much better and much more interesting if it kept a distance from its subject (or in the case of Chris Kyle, his family) and instead made a film about the actual man, and not The Legend or The Hero created by, or built around that man. But Eastwood is not the director to make that kind of film, he lacks the nuance, the skill and the craft to make a truly complex and layered film that isn't a western.
Another really bad part of the film is the non-Hanks acting. As is the case in most of Clint Eastwood's films, the supporting and secondary actors give utterly heinous performances. Laura Linney plays Sully's wife, she is a truly terrific actress, yet here she is embarrassingly awful. Her work is shrill, shallow and devoid of purpose. Anna Gunn, who is also a usually solid actress, is so terrified and uncomfortable in front of Eastwood's camera as to be distracting.
The smaller roles, those of passengers, stewardesses and the like, are filled by actors who are just plain terrible. The airline stewardess' and a father and son who get on the plane last minute are particularly note worthy in their atrociousness. The always shitty Michael Rapaport makes a brief appearance as a bartender and continues to mystify the western world as to how a man so talentless and devoid of charisma can continue to have an acting career. Mr. Rapaport can rest easy though as the actors playing his fellow New York bar compatriots are equally shitty at acting.
The problem with Clint Eastwood directing a film is that he doesn't actually direct his actors. He does very few takes of each scene and gives no direction or guidance to his actors, so the less experienced, and less talented actors are left to their own devices and often times flounder. Eastwood's hands off approach to directing actors results in a myriad of underwhelming and terribly uneven performances throughout, and his films most assuredly suffer greatly as a result of it. Go back and peruse the acting in the supporting and smaller roles in Eastwood's last decade of filmmaking. They are absolutely cringe worthy. Just as Bradley Cooper did great work in American Sniper but was surrounded by a troupe of actors that could have been dug up out of the Blaine, Missouri community theatre, so it is with Tom Hanks and his supporting cast in Sully.
Why does Eastwood leave his actors to their own devices? I think the biggest reason is that it actually takes time to direct actors. Eastwood is, first and foremost, concerned with getting his films done on time and on budget. He is no fool for he knows if he is on schedule and on budget they will let him keep making movies, this is how the business works. So Eastwood chooses to get things done on time, rather then to get things done RIGHT. Sometimes, like when he has a very experienced and talented cast, this approach works because his actors are up to the task. Eastwood's greatest film (and one of the greatest films of all time) Unforgiven, is a perfect example of this. When you have Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman, Richard Harris and Eastwood himself in your cast, you don't have to waste much time working with the actors. But when you have considerably lesser talents and lesser experienced actors, you DO need to spend time working with them and helping them to gauge the size, scope and scale of their performance.
There are other issues with the film that are just egregious errors in filmmaking. After the plane crashes into the Hudson, there are not one but two instances where individual passengers are in peril, and Eastwood plays up this peril to a great degree, spending time and energy on it. Then he just walks away from the danger sequences and lets them resolve themselves without any explanation. It is bizarre, and frankly absurd. The people who were in peril weren't that interesting to begin with, so why even show them in danger in the first place? And then since you did show them in danger, why not play out that sequence to its conclusion? It is a strange, terribly sloppy and unconscionably lazy bit of filmmaking on Eastwood's part. It was one of those sequences that make me shudder to think that Eastwood has two Oscars for directing and Stanley Kubrick has none. Oh the humanity!!
In conclusion, Sully is a rather shallow and thin film that is definitely not worth spending your hard earned money to see in the theatre. While the plane sequences are captivating, the surrounding story and the majority of the acting are sub-par. If you are a fan of Eastwood or Hanks, or even Sully himself, then you can wait to see the film for free on cable or Netflix. If you want to watch a plane-crash survival oriented film while waiting for Sully to come out for free, go watch the much maligned Flight starring Denzel Washington. While the film is definitely flawed, Washington's performance is one of the best of his stellar career and is worth seeing. Or if you want to watch a 9-11 themed film, go watch Paul Greengrass' gut wrenching United 93. Both Flight and United 93 are considerably more worthy of your time than the rather tepid Sully.