The death-defying heroics of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles are truly remarkable: In January 2009, after both engines failed, they piloted U.S. Air Flight 1549 to a safe water landing on the Hudson River in New York City. In doing so, they saved all 155 people on board. You may remember this from the news, and be intrigued that a movie is now going to explore their heroism, get inside their minds to understand how they acted, and immerse us in the details of how it all went down.
And then director Clint Eastwood starts Sully with the stultifying thud of an inquisition that has all the excitement of an economics conference. It's Sully (Tom Hanks) and Skiles' (Aaron Eckhart) first meeting with the National Transit Safety Board (NTSB), and the board members (Mike O'Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan) are questioning the decisions the pilots made. In fairness, the NTSB is just doing its job, but in depicting this, first Eastwood emphasizes the investigation (that feels like a witch hunt) just as much as he does the miraculous landing itself, which establishes a flashback structure that doesn't necessarily serve the movie well.
The sluggish start soon gives way to a disjointed narrative that offers multiple perspectives of the landing. We see Sully and Skiles in the cockpit as they act, and act fast. We see the landing from Sully's nightmares, from computer simulations, and from the view of the air traffic control worker (Patch Darragh) who guides them to safety.
Not helping are smaller moments that do little to add perspective: Sully calls his wife Lorrie (Laura Linney) multiple times, but she has little to do but look concerned. We also get flashbacks to Sully's youth and military flying experience, but as one of the NTSB suits mentions, all that matters is U.S. Air Flight 1549 — everything else is irrelevant. These scenes pad the running time to a little more than 90 minutes, which is short by Eastwood standards and suggests there wasn't a lot from the real Sully's book (Highest Duty) for screenwriter Todd Komarnicki to draw from.
Still, when we finally see the landing in full, it's breathtaking, especially in IMAX. The ensuing rescue from NYPD's finest is also inspiring, and the entire sequence puts a lump in your throat even though you know it all turns out fine. More of this, and less of the backroom bureaucratic nonsense Sully and Skiles had to endure, would've been welcome.
What's more, we know the investigation is a moot point because every person who was on that plane is still alive. And that's all that matters, right? Eastwood's insistence on dwelling on the negative therefore seems foolish, and doesn't help us appreciate Sully and Skiles' heroism any more than we already do.
Sully doesn't diminish our admiration of the real man whose instincts and 42 years of experience saved lives, but you can't help but wish it did a better job of telling his story.