It felt appropriate that the first film I saw at the cinema after moving from the UK to the US was a real-life story of an all-American hero, starring the all-American film star, Tom Hanks. I recently read an article accusing Hanks of wasting his talent on his choices of film since the Oscar-winning heyday of ‘Forrest Gump’; a statement I think is somewhat unfair. His three films this year alone (‘A Hologram for the King’, ‘Inferno’ and now ‘Sully’), have been diverse, if not exactly critic-friendly and let’s not forget that the excellent ‘Captain Phillips’ was only a couple of years ago as well. Two of his 2016 films have been directed by actors – Clint Eastwood in the case of ‘Sully’ – although I have to say Hanks was much more of a selling point to me than Eastwood for this film.
I think few people will be going into this film unaware of the real-life events behind it – Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger successfully landed a plane that had both engines destroyed by a bird-strike on the freezing Hudson river in New York, saving all 155 people on board. Where this film seeks to find the majority of its drama though, is not from the events on board or even the immediate aftermath, but rather the investigation into Sully that took place afterwards. And that is where the major flaw of this film comes in – structure. Eastwood and writer Todd Komarnicki have chosen to show the events in such an odd order that you spend the whole film frustrated, internally crying out “just show us the crash!”
However, it is not until the final third of ‘Sully’ that we see the fateful journey. One of the most gripping aspects is watching the events from the point of view of the air-traffic controller – his panic unfolding as he watches the plane disappear. But instead, much of the time is spent watching Sully on the phone to his wife (the criminally under-used Laura Linney), having 9/11 inspired dreams/visions and having meetings with the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB are very much set up as the villains of the piece, questioning the actions of the heroic Sully. Sully is backed up by his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles – a slight role for a fairly major actor – Aaron Eckhart.
The film is of course held together and completely driven by Hanks performance, doing his best vulnerable and humble hero, reminiscent of Captain Miller in ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Whether it will be enough for an Oscar nomination remains to be seen, but Sully does tick a lot of ‘Academy-bait’ boxes.
Hanks will always be able to lure me to the box office, with his humanity, humility and humour. Eastwood as director, on the other hand, must do better. This film is hampered by odd directorial choices, which left me frustrated and ultimately cringing (particularly the ending with the real-life Sully and the survivors, an all to common trope of biopic dramas). I expected sentimentality, of course, but that tipped me over the edge.
As for cinema-going in the USA (from the point-of-view of a very recent ex-pat Brit)? I recommend the Milk Duds.