The events of Sully, aka The Miracle on the Hudson, are matters of extreme public knowledge. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), his crew, his passengers, and the plane he managed to land on the Hudson River in New York – with zero loss of life – are the stuff of legend. The movie Sully promises to show us what went on that we don’t know about. But are those events actually movie-worthy?
Yes… if it’s a TV movie. But this isn’t.
First, the good. The acting is topnotch. Tom Hanks is his usual excellent, Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Jeff Skiles, along with everyone else, is great. You believe they’re the characters, even though the chances that you’ve seen the real people being portrayed many times already is high. And if you love Tom Hanks (and most of us do), he’s again playing a character you’ll remember and, of course, root for.
It’s got the usual assortment of people on board we get to see a bit about so we’re invested in their survival – the father, son, and nephew/cousin whose original plane was delayed and who scramble onto this flight at literally the last seconds and who are, therefore, separated due to no seats being together; the adult daughter and somewhat disabled elderly mother who are flying to see relatives; the young mother with her baby, sitting next to the single man who loves children; and more besides – all of whom do a great job with very limited screen time.
The recreations of crashes – both the real one and the ones Sully is having nightmares about – are amazing. You again feel as though you’re right there, without the horrors of handheld camera work. (If you find that triggery, though, be warned – what seems like half the movie is this airplane crashing again and again.)
And the story, the real story, is amazing. Everyone survived, minor injuries only, even for those who were swimming in the freezing cold Hudson, firstly because of that miraculous landing and secondly because of the fast response of all the New York area emergency response teams. The pathos of the air traffic controller who thinks he’s lost this plane only to discover that a miracle has indeed happened is totally affecting. You feel everyone’s pain, fear, frustration, etc. And it hurts to have to say anything bad about this movie, because Sully saved the lives of everyone on board. Captain Sullenberger, the real person, is an honest to God hero, as are all the men and women who helped save 155 lives in small or large part.
The script, however… the script is not a hero. Because it doesn’t deliver what it should.
First off, the biggest problem is that there isn’t a real antagonist. The birds that fly into the engines and destroy both of them while the plane is still ascending to cruising altitude are not the antagonists – they’re what causes the issue, but they aren’t “against” our hero. The failing plane isn’t an antagonist – it’s the challenge that our hero must surmount. And, in reenactment movies such as this one, an antagonist is not necessarily a requirement – after all, surviving the danger is what this is all about. But in order to show us the supposed “behind the scenes” tension (which is called standard operating procedure for any air kerfuffle, whether minor or major), antagonists must be had. So, that leaves only the FAA’s reviewing committee to fill the role. Were liberties taken with how the reviewing committee acted? No idea, however…
Our screening included a passenger on the flight, and she did a Q&A after the movie. One of the questions was how accurate was what we saw about the hearings? She laughed and said not at all. Now, whether this means that what we saw was totally made up or not, I don’t know. However, there seems to be a lot of creative license being given in order to create bad guys. Who, in the end, aren’t actually all that bad.
So, okay, liberties were taken, so what? That’s a given for every “based on real events” movie ever made. And I’d ignore it except for the movie’s true fatal flaw – repetition.
Oh, so, so, so much repetition. We see the nightmares reenacted in many ways. We see Sully jogging the streets of New York over and over and over again, in case anyone had missed the fact that he’s having PTSD reactions based on what he just survived – you know, in case all the nightmare repetition wasn’t pounding that over your head enough. We see the flight’s crash over and over again, and each showing tells us nothing new. We finally get the full on, from airport to river to rescue scene – and it’s riveting. And then we see it again. And again. And parts of it again. And then we get to see simulations again and again and again. And each time it’s less and less riveting.
And why do we see so much repetition, you ask? Because without it the entire movie would probably end up being less than an hour’s running time. The repetition is there as padding, for which director Clint Eastwood should be ashamed. Especially because all the padding is unnecessary.
Why is it unnecessary? Because what we don’t see is one of the biggest reasons why Sully was the only commercial captain whose entire plane full of people survived a controlled water landing and, in fact, could call it a controlled water landing rather than a crash (considered to be a guarantee of death for all on board) – because, in addition to being an expert pilot, he’s also expert at gliding. And he glides the plane in. It’s literally why it’s a miracle versus a disaster, and this skill is never shown.
Oh, we get flashbacks, and they’re fine – Sully learning to fly a biplane (other than giving the fine Jeff Kober a reason to get to smile on camera and play a nice guy for all of 2 minutes of screen time there’s little point to this), and Sully landing an injured fighter jet successfully (totally a point to this, but it’s hard to tell who’s who in the scene, so it could have been better done). But they aren’t enough.
Where are the flashbacks of him becoming an expert glider, so we know why he’s willing to give the water landing a shot? Where are the flashbacks of his military service, where we see how he’s learned to be cool under pressure? Where are the scenes that show us why Skiles was able to do exactly what he needed to do – his First Officer not panicking being in no small part one of the reasons Sully could land the plane – when he needed to do it? Where are the scenes that show us why the flight attendants didn’t panic? These three women had to think they were going to die, but you’d never know it from how they handled themselves – where did that moxie and grace under extreme pressure come from? I’ll tell you where they are – nowhere. Instead, though, by golly, here’s another repeat of the crash! And another!
Connie Selleca and Wayne Rogers starred in a “based on real events” 1990 TV Movie, Miracle Landing, as the First Officer and Captain of the 1988 Aloha Airlines event where a plane lost part of its fuselage due to metal fatigue while between Maui and the Big Island (as in, they had a choice of crashing in the water or landing, and possibly crashing, at the airport). And since the pilot and first officer have no communications with the flight crew because of the destruction, they have no idea what’s happened – is it a bomb or failure in the plane? Is anyone still back there at all? Is the full plane still back there? Of the three flight attendants, one is instantly sucked out of the plane and one is badly injured, leaving the third to try to keep the passengers calm and everyone else alive.
That TV movie was far more compelling than Sully, because you follow what’s going on in real time, and you also get flashbacks from the pilots and flight attendant so you see why they’re able to do what needs to be done at the time it needs to happen. That TV movie didn’t show us the landing over and over again, it didn’t show us the top of the plane ripping off over and over again, and it mercifully didn’t show us the poor flight attendant being sucked out of the plane again and again. It didn’t start in the middle, go to the start, leap towards the end, middle again, start again, reason for being, lather/rinse/repeat until it lurched into the conclusion. No, it showed us what was going on and spent time giving us the background as we needed it to understand why these particular people were the reason only one life was lost. (There were 65 passengers injured due to the lid’s ripping off, but not due to the landing.) It was a gripping movie, well made, and Sully could have taken a page from its non-repetitive, appropriate flashback book.
Still, Tom Hanks onscreen Jimmy Stewarting it up and that truly excellent reenactment taking us from airport to rescue are worth something. And if Hanks is your catnip and you can deal with the repetitive padding, the real Miracle will still make you choke up and cheer.
Rating: Acting – 5 Stars; Repetitive Script – 2 stars; Average — 3.5 Stars
On January 15, 2009, the world witnessed the “Miracle on the Hudson” when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks) glided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 aboard. However, even as Sully was being heralded by the public and the media for his unprecedented feat of aviation skill, an investigation was unfolding that threatened to destroy his reputation and his career.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Director: Clint Eastwood
Story by: Jeffrey Zaslow
Music by: Christian Jacob