If you were watching news broadcasts on January 15th, 2009, or in the week or so afterward, you already know virtually everything that happens in Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully, about the pilots who safely landed a faltering commercial aircraft in New York’s Hudson River. The entire flight lasted only six minutes: both engines blew out just after takeoff, when the plane flew through a flock of Canadian geese, and the water landing followed almost immediately. Eastwood walks audiences through the incident multiple times, from different points of view and camera perspectives. Then he loops back and does it all again, via several computer simulations showing different choices Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger might have made in landing the plane. The re-creations of the flight are tense and tautly directed, the kind of action sequences that lure curious viewers through the door. But those scenes are brief, and they aren’t Eastwood’s primary focus. He’s more interested in how Sullenberger appraises himself after the incident, and how he copes with sudden celebrity.
Eastwood’s admiration for Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) is so palpable, direct, and uncomplicated that the entire film could probably be replaced with a tasteful T-shirt or poster reading “Chesley Sullenberger is a competent pilot and a good man.” But Sully’s low-key simplicity works in its favor. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (working from Sullenberger’s memoir) have plenty of opportunities to sensationalize both the crash landing and the National Transportation Safety Board investigation that follows. Instead, they dial the story down to Eastwood’s favorite tempo: the slow, thoughtful meander of serious people taking their time to chew over what’s important to them.
Sully's minimalism is particularly striking because Eastwood so closely follows the familiar structure of dramas like Robert Zemeckis' 2012 pilot drama Flight, which also travels from a crashing plane to an NTSB hearing, finding plenty of painful personal drama along the way. But where Flight focuses on a dramatic, breast-beating struggle with alcoholism, Sully tightens the focus down to the faint frown on Hanks' face, as Sullenberger studies a drink in a bar where he's been hailed as a hero, or ponders the river after the crash. For a film so focused on a potential disaster, it's surprisingly internal, and surprisingly willing to rely on its audience's ability to find satisfying meaning in Hanks' troubled expression. As the initial trauma of the crash fades, and he begins to question himself, doubt creeps in, but Eastwood leaves it abstract, as a mood rather than a subject for Oscar-clip soliloquies.
And that's an unusual choice for Eastwood. His films do often focus on quiet heroism, but he can be sentimental and showy about emotion. The characters in films like Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, J. Edgar, and Gran Turino repress their feelings, or channel them into obsessive pursuits, but they eventually come to some sort of explosive catharsis, complete with tearful close-ups and a score that says "It's weepin' time." Hanks' version of Sullenberger doesn't go in for those sorts of emotional fireworks. He's a humble man, uncomfortable with the "hero" tag, capable of keeping his temper when provoked, and inclined to keep his feelings to himself. It seems Eastwood respects those qualities just as much as the ability to coolly land a plane on a river.
But all the subtlety and depth in the script can't hide the fact that this is still a movie about six minutes of action, and Sully often feels padded and repetitive. Every time Eastwood and Komarnicki revisit the river landing, they give the audience new information and building action, with more focus on the tense, split-second decisions made by Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, in a ridiculous but Skiles-accurate mustache). Even so, it's the same story told multiple times, interspersed with long pauses to watch Sullenberger jog, have subdued phone conversations with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), or just look noble and modest. It's the kind of role that now defines Hanks' career. He's an approachable aw-shucks everyman, and his version of Sully gives off a subdued fatherly appeal. The minimalist approach suits Hanks' self-effacing performance perfectly.
Even so, Eastwood and Komarnicki don't give him much to do but explore his 50 shades of grave in a series of mundane, talky after-the-fact sequences, including the hearing where NTSB investigators Charles Porter (Glee dad Mike O'Malley) and Elizabeth Davis (Breaking Bad co-star Anna Gunn) drill into his decision-making. To the degree that Sully has villains, it's these two functionaries, who dare to approach the Hudson hero with reproval instead of admiration. But even here, Sully keeps the face-off mellow and dignified. The NTSB hearing is purest Hollywood bullshit-history: Eastwood condenses a 15-month investigation into around 20 minutes of conversation, complete with the perfectly timed arrival of key information. But at least it isn't gavel-pounding, soundbite-yelling histrionic history. It's mostly plausible procedural, as respectful and detail-oriented as Paul Greengrass' 9/11 drama United 93, with the investigators gravely doing their jobs to the best of their abilities.
That's most of Sully in a nutshell: Eastwood conferring his approval on the competent, efficient kind of hero who saves lives without question, then squirms a little under the praise. It's only appropriate that the film is as competent, efficient, and mildly dull as the people it celebrates.