Making a biopic about a living person is difficult. It helps when they've done something as spectacular as Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, inhabited in this titular drama by the great Tom Hanks, but often it can seem exploitative or just too short-sighted. How do we know the person's story is over? As a clever solution, director Clint Eastwood presents a Sully who never wanted to be a hero. His story was over the second that plane landed; fortunately for everyone onboard—and us—his actions were remarkable enough to warrant cinematic documentation.
The bulk of Sully is spent with the good Captain and his first officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), both reeling from the controlled crash into the Hudson River and trying to figure out what happens next. They're both amazed to be alive, and also shocked that anyone would doubt their depiction of the events. Nevertheless, as a series of computer simulations suggest that Sully could've made it back to an airport after all, his heroic deed (at least privately) becomes something of a question mark.
This is Hanks's second "captain" movie of the decade, relatively hot on the heels of 2013's well-received Captain Phillips. While Phillips was as pulse-pounding as it gets, Sully meanders to its conclusion in a sometimes-plodding fashion that picks up steam at just the right time. Eastwood is no Paul Greengrass; Sully is no United 93. Those are both good things.
Eastwood splits Sully into intertwined halves: though we open after the crash, Sully's memories and recollections to the National Transportation Safety Board transport us back to the landing itself. The present day can be a snore; Sully vacillates between being grilled by The Man and having halting conversations with his wife (a woefully wasted Laura Linney).
Yet the other half is pretty much a masterpiece. Maybe it was the shock of seeing so many plane crashes on screen for perhaps the first time since 9/11, but everything about the flashbacks sparkles. Eastwood's recent films are a mixed bag (Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys, American Sniper) but he's always had an eye for the taut slow build. Putting aside that Eastwood and writer Todd Komarnicki unsurprisingly amped up the post-crash drama, the emotions they mine from the buildup, the landing, and how the two pilots respond to mounting doubts are captivating.
The cast surrounding Hanks and Eckhart is terrific: Anna Gunn, Mike O'Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Turtle from Entourage. Though no one has much to do besides ask Sully grim questions or embody a very New York-y New Yorker, they add some gravitas (or at least a "hey, it's that guy/girl") to the proceedings. And Eckhart, weirdly, has never been better; he delivers a seemingly endless batch of hammy dialogue with utter charm and proves a worthy foil to Hanks in every way.
There's a bit here of the grizzled old man who pretended an empty chair was President Barack Obama: the plot hinges on how newfangled computer simulations can't mimic exactly what's going on in a cockpit. But when Tom Hanks is your wily veteran who scoffs at modern ways, you're automatically granted a little leeway. And to Eastwood's credit, he doesn't harp on the evils of technology for any longer than he has to; it's tried-and-true storytelling, not a rant about the value of old versus new.
Sully ends on one of the cheesiest notes I've ever seen: a lame one-liner from Aaron Eckhart that should've been followed by a Police Squad-esque freeze frame. There's also some seriously manufactured family drama tacked onto the crash, including a father and son on a golf trip who get separated during the landing. But in the days after I saw it, the bad elements just sorta faded away. What I remembered were the flashbacks, and how much I enjoyed the interactions between Hanks and Eckhart. Eastwood may not have hit a home run, but it's one of the more satisfying doubles in recent memory.