(Courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Sully (2016) Review

Sully is an odd film in that its presentation is emotionally even throughout. There are no highs or lows except for what individual viewers may project onto the movie. There are no surprises, and there’s very little tension. In fact, though the film tries to endear some of the characters to audiences, everyone is so muted that there’s no one to really invest in. Despite all of that, Sully is still engrossing overall, because even though the act of heroism on the Hudson is well known, the investigation into the heroes that affected that miracle is not.

On January 15, 2009, a commercial airliner flying out of LaGuardia airport in New York was struck by a flock of birds shortly after takeoff, disabling both engines. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) follow their training and work with air traffic control to somehow pilot the plane back to an airport runway. But with no power and nothing but densely populated infrastructure all around them, Sully makes the crucial decision to attempt a dangerous water landing on the Hudson river. By no small miracle, he survives without a scratch. Following the landing, the National Transportation Safety Board conducts its investigation into the incident to discover, among other things, if human error played a factor in the water landing that threatened so many people’s lives. The board’s potential negative findings could ruin Sully’s name, career, and everything he’s built over his lifetime as a pilot.

Sully is a very subdued film and presents the events that surrounded the “Miracle on the Hudson” in an almost clinical fashion rather than dramatic. In fact, the film spends a good portion of its running time on aspects that aren’t of particular interest or could at least be truncated. For instance, when the audience initially thinks it’s going to get a cockpit-view of the landing with the pilots fighting for their lives, audiences instead get the air traffic controller view, which is far less interesting. It’s just an entire scene of a guy in a headset calmly giving instructions to people never shown while staring at a computer screen with esoteric markings. Sully also doesn’t attempt to educate audiences to give viewers as much information as the characters on-screen have. So when acronyms are spoken or plane parts are described by their technical names, it’s difficult to understand their relevance until a character reacts to them.

This “silent and invisible observer” approach, however, is actually one of Sully’s charms once viewers get used to it. The film doesn’t cut the corners off any of the happenings. For instance, during the presentation of the NTSB findings, audiences get to watch multiple computer simulations of the landing in almost real-time. That presentation could have easily been cut in half and still got its point and impact across. Then there are the myriad nameless ancillary characters that make up various rescue personnel who are elevated in the movie by actually having dialog. It’s the film’s attempt to show a coming together of people to achieve a greater good. Overall, the gambit pays off here, but only after audiences accept the vision of the filmmakers.

The acting is some of the most natural to be found in any film. That’s because nothing too taxing was demanded from any of the actors. There are no heated arguments. There are no outbursts. Even the panic on the plane is largely measured. This control is so pervasive that when a character celebrates having survived the landing it actually feels out of place and forced. As for Tom Hanks, he does a fine job, but most of his emotions are expressed by staring a thousand-yard stare past the camera, hinting at the turmoil behind his eyes as he sees some event from his past. Hanks plays Sully as an even-keeled kind of man, who doesn’t get fazed by much. That’s exactly the kind of person you want in charge during a crisis – less so as the main character to a feature film.

Most of what happens in the film feels mundane. Even the extraordinary parts get reduced to the ordinary when the film dissects them from every angle. Surprisingly, no attempts were made to heighten any aspect of the film in the way that Flight, which I’ve read was partially inspired by Sullenberger’s heroics, heightened its events and characters. Instead, by the end of Sully, audiences will feel like they have a very comprehensive understanding of what happened and of all of the boring moving parts that ensured the outcome was favorable. For everyone who wanted more insight into the Hero of the Hudson, this is all interesting. It’s just not exciting.