Is the “Miracle on the Hudson” inextricably linked to 9/11? That is, is it possible to discuss Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s landing US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January of 2009 without also talking about the terrorist attack in New York City years earlier?
The director of “Sully,” Clint Eastwood, seems to think not. Or, at the very least, that to talk about 9/11 strengthens this work. From the opening moments of the movie, with Sully—beautifully portrayed by Tom Hanks—reimagining the events of Flight 1549 with an altogether different ending straight through to the end of movie, there is reference after reference after reference to 9/11. The references are so great and so numerous that the movie opening this weekend, a weekend that marks the 15th anniversary of the attacks feels like an horrific choice.
That last sentence, however, isn’t germane to a review of the movie itself. But, much like the specter which hangs over the film, needs to be mentioned.
“Sully” is, in fact, a fascinating movie, but a movie with only one fully-realized character – Sully himself. Sure, it features a good cast including Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn, and Mike O’Malley, but they are all there solely to serve the look at Sully’s actions on that January day. They are all present so that Sully can see the various bits and pieces of his life, so that he can be challenged and come through to the other side a hero.
It is not enough for the film, however, to have the incredible landing on the river be the ultimate representation of Sully’s heroism. No, instead, the movie must offer a villain, a baddie for Sully to go up against. So, for no discernible reason whatsoever, the NTSB—in the form of O’Malley and Gunn’s investigators, Charles Porter and Elizabeth Davis, respectively—plays the baddie.
As presented, the NTSB believes that Sully of course could have returned to an airport, that he landed on the Hudson because… well, they have no reason for such an action they just accuse him. Porter and Davis, as stated above, aren’t full characters and are offered no motivations whatsoever, so it is impossible for an audience to fathom just why they believe Sully to have made the wrong choice. Their talks with Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Eckhart), aren’t fact-finding discussions but rather wrong-finding ones, oppositional from the get-go. It could be that the nature of these proceedings is true to life, however Wikipedia’s account of the investigation indicates that the movie misrepresents the facts.
Worse, these villains are made even more unnecessary by the fact that Hanks and the script do a brilliant job of showing us Sully’s own doubts about the events and what might have been possible. Sully doesn’t feel like a hero despite having saved everyone on board the plane, he is tormented by his actions on the day and those torments, those nagging inner-voices are much more scary than cookie cutter bureaucrats. We get less time with that inner turmoil, however, than we ought to because Sully has this external worry of the bureaucrats.
Outside of Hanks, one of the other great strengths of the film is Eastwood’s ability to show us the events of the flight more than once during the 95 minute movie and have them be just as powerful no matter how many times we are there with Sully and Skiles in the cockpit. Even knowing before the lights go down in the theater that everyone lived, “Sully” masterfully builds the tension during those sequences.
In the end, “Sully” is a mixed bag. It does some things astoundingly well and it misses horribly elsewhere. It is a tale of true heroism and has a great hero but it isn’t always aware of the true villain. While the allusions to 9/11 may make sense, their repeated nature lessens the impact. Hanks, however, delivers an incredible, powerful performance which helps mitigate the film’s shortcomings.
photo credit: Warner Bros.