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15 Sep 2016

A Close Call Indeed: Tom Hanks and the Airplane Sequences Overcome a Weak, Fictitious Inquisition to Put 'Sully' Over the Top

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Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks in Sully. Aaron Eckhart and Tom Hanks in Sully.

Don’t go see Sully, Clint Eastwood’s take on the heroic actions of pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, expecting a lot of historic realism.

The portions about a pilot successfully landing his plane in an ice-cold Hudson River and allowing more than 150 people to tell the tale are really the most important, and most compelling, parts of this movie. As for the evil, fictitious inquisition that tortures Sully (played by Tom Hanks in a typically riveting performance) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (welcome back to decent movies, Aaron Eckhart!) … well, that’s basically a lot of made-up horse shit.

That’s not to say Sully wasn’t tormented in the days after the event, and the film does a good job of displaying his internal struggles. The man had to essentially crash-land a plane after a bunch of birds flew into his engines, and then he had a bunch of dicks asking him tons of questions in the aftermath. Undoubtedly, he went through hell during that flight, and is haunted to this day. Eastwood and Hanks deliver a compelling psychological drama about a man who doubts his own heroism—to the point of nightmarish visions and self-deprecation.

However, the film goes a bit afoul in the depiction of a panel that didn’t even give Sully and his crew a chance to breathe after being plucked out of the Hudson. Yes, there was an inquiry, but it took many months, and did not take place a few days after the event; eventually, the panel’s findings were in favor of Sully and his maneuvers. Surely, Sully worried about the investigation, as any man in his situation would, but there’s no doubt that Eastwood and his scripters got a little carried away creating bad guys.

As for the actual flight, one that only took a few minutes: Sully proves that a pretty decent movie can be made around that amazing occurrence as the centerpiece. Eastwood (86 freaking years old!) has put together some of the best scenes of his movie-making career in this film, especially when that plane takes the bird hit, can’t make it back to LaGuardia and starts plummeting. It’s scary stuff, and he puts you in the cockpit—and in a crowded coach seat—every step of the way.

Hanks should find himself in contention for another Oscar nomination. (He hasn’t gotten a nomination since Cast Away in 2001! That is crazy!) His performance is understated, non-showy and straight-up brilliant. Anybody who has seen the real Sully conduct himself during an interview can see the man has a low-key persona. Hanks gives us a dude with a lot going on beneath that quiet exterior.

Eckhart, whose career hit the skids after his bravura turn in The Dark Knight, gets back on track as a man who can’t believe his friend is being grilled so harshly after saving so many lives. His work here is almost good enough to make you forget I, Frankenstein. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, and she basically spends the whole film on the phone acting totally worried. Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn plays one of Sully’s interrogators; it’s a role that doesn’t really further her career.

Eastwood has been specializing in biographical films and real-life events in the latter part of his career. Sully, like American Sniper, is an entertaining if somewhat untruthful film about a real guy. (Then there is J. Edgar, which was a disaster.)

It would be hard to create an entire motion picture out of such a short event, so it’s no surprise that Eastwood and friends had to make up some garbage to pad the running time. Luckily for them, and for us, the great parts of this movie put it over the top. It doesn’t hurt that Hanks heads up the cast.

Sully is playing at theaters across the valley.

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