Sunday, September 11, 2016


 3 / 5 

I saw Clint Eastwood's Sully on Sept. 11, and just an hour or so before heading to the theater I had been watching an as-it-happened rebroadcast of the Today show's coverage of the terror attacks.  The fear and dread were almost as real as they were 15 years ago as the images of United 175 hitting the South Tower were replayed and replayed and replayed as the newscasters and the world struggled to comprehend what they had seen.

Similar images, created with digital visual effects, are front and center in the first few minutes of Sully, and they drive home two points about the movie: First, like last year's The Walk, it's about 9/11 without directly being about 9/11.  Second, it's very, very difficult to make a movie about a plane flight that lasted 3 minutes, 28 seconds.  Even at just slightly more than an hour and a half, including credits, Sully feels padded, particularly in its first half.

That's when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger -- played by Tom Hanks in a role that seems custom-made but a few decades too late for Jimmy Stewart -- bolts up in bed, hyperventilating with with movie-perfect night terrors as he dreams about what could have gone wrong with the airplane he was piloting on Jan. 15, 2009.

US Airways Flight 1579 landed in the Hudson River and all 155 people aboard survived, facts that anyone going to see Sully will probably know.  (Then again, given that some people thought The Martian was based on a true story, maybe some people won't.)  The facts are simple: The flight took off from La Guardia airport, ran into a flock of geese, lost power and ended up in the river three minutes later.

The sheer brevity of its central narrative means that Sully can't rely on only the flight itself for drama; it has to find a narrative hook that can sustain an additional 90 minutes of story, and the one it settles for also lacks drama: It revolves around the follow-up NTSB investigation into the events on board the airplane, leading to questions about whether Sully and his first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) really did the best they could.

The NTSB investigators are painted as mustache-twirling villains, while Sully implies that the final hearing into the flight happened within days of the incident, when in fact it came nearly six months later, and it's pretty likely that the investigators were, like Sully himself, just doing their jobs.

Director Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki also try, without success, to build some dramatic tension around Sully's home life, with his wife, played blandly by a surprisingly ineffective Laura Linney.  She laments that they might not be able to pay the bills if Sully doesn't start flying again soon.  All of her scenes are cutaways of her on the phone with Hanks, and at one point Linney resorts to biting her fingernails as she tries to find some urgency.

So, Sully has about as hard a time getting airborne as the airplane itself -- but finally has much more success, though, ironically, only briefly.  The scenes on board the plane are harrowing and well-crafted, and the shots of the stricken aircraft descending over upper Manhattan are convincing.  The landing is a white-knuckler, and will have anyone who sees Sully paying a little more attention to the pre-flight safety briefings next time they fly.

Its latter half works about as well as its first half doesn't, but, lacking anything more to say once the hearings are done, the movie comes to an abrupt ending.  We're left to sort out for ourselves why Eastwood thought that Sullenberger's brief, but undeniably heroic, flight was important enough to turn into a feature film.

Fifteen years after 9/11, I think, he wants Sully be an antidote to the depression we still feel around that day and everything that came after it -- it's about an airplane that flew over Manhattan and didn't strike the towers, didn't kill thousands of people, didn't lead to a pervasive sense of gloom and disillusionment that still won't go away.

"Sully" Sullenberger is the hero we lacked on 9/11, the one we hoped we'd find amid the ruins.  He's the guy who took an impossible situation and made it all right.  "No one dies today," says an anonymous rescue worker as one of the passengers is plucked from the freezing Hudson.  It's a needless line, trying a little too hard to drive home the point Sully is trying to make.

Last year, Robert Zemeckis directed The Walk, an extraordinary movie about the World Trade Center that both was and wasn't about 9/11.  It was about the innocence and wide-eyed wonder we seem to have lost on that day, an ode to the towers, a story about a man's determination to do something impossible in the skies over New York City.  Sully is, in some ways, a spiritual companion to The Walk, given that it won't directly address the issue most on its mind, but Sully's metaphor is as clunky as The Walk's was graceful.

Sully goes so far as to show pictures of the airplane smashing into buildings as Sully dreams about the calamity he prevented.  He did a heroic thing, that "Sully" Sullenberger, with his equally heroic co-pilot right by his side, aided by heroic flight attendants and even heroic passengers.  What it all meant, why it all mattered, are the things that Sully never quite articulates.  It's not a bad film at all, and thanks to Eastwood, it's never unwatchable.  But it never manages to do much more than show us what happened and hail Sully as a hero for his quick thinking in the air.

When it's the skies and in the water, Sully soars; on land, I'm afraid it crashes.

Viewed Sept. 11, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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