Why the heck does ANYONE travel with Tom Hanks these days?
On January 15, 2009, a US Airways flight leaving La Guardia Airport in New York came in contact with birds that blew out both engines of the aircraft. When the pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, realized he couldn’t get to any nearby airport, he executed a successful water landing on the Hudson River thereby saving all 155 souls on board including himself. It was a moment of American heroism and pride to see a disaster involving a airplane in New York City to be completely averted. Tiny problem: it all took about 40 minutes from takeoff to the end of the rescue…so how the hell do you make a movie about such a short event? You stretch the hell out of the story.
So for the film adaptation of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” we primarily follow Tom Hanks as Captain Sully dealing with PTSD from surviving the water landing and facing allegations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that he could have landed the plane in one of two different airports without jeopardizing the lives of everyone on board. You actually don’t get to experience the water landing until the middle of the film, and it’s done as a flashback. Honestly, it’s a strange choice for the pacing of this movie.
The first third of the film is a painfully slow burn as you watch Sully and his first officer, Jeffery Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart, field questions from the NTSB and talk smack right back as the federal agents speak in increasingly accusatory tones towards the pilots. The agents are really not particularly memorable (save for the fact they’re a bunch of assholes to guys who just saved over a hundred lives), but the scenes are saved somewhat by Hanks’ and Eckhart’s performances. Both veteran actors demonstrate why they’re at the top of their game, and both demonstrate how you can insert as much charisma as possible into a very bland, very uninteresting script. The way they deliver speeches throughout the film are flag-waving, stand and salute worthy material…until you really read the words out loud and you realize the lines are just stilted as hell. So Hanks and Eckhart both deserve respect for really elevating this material.
Now most of this film is an adaptation of Sullenberger’s own memoir he co-wrote in the aftermath of the Flight 1549 ditch, Highest Duty. It appears to be your standard sort of fare of talking about your life before the main event that turned you into an international figure, and while I’m sure some of that must have been interesting…the film opts to shove in a few random events from Sullenberger’s flight history in the middle of the film. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of scenes, they just quickly come out of nowhere to tell you where Sully learned to fly and how he successfully landed damaged fighter jets. They lack any agency, they’re not visually interesting to look at, and you realize that the director only left that shit in there for padding purposes before he takes to you to the Flight 1549 landing.
Now granted, when the film decides to show you the actual events of January 15, 2009, it starts the scene from an odd place in the story and turns into yet another flashback…that goes on for a solid 30 minutes, before you’re dropped back where the film had actually left. The events of that day are the real reason to see this movie, because it’s a very solid short film. You see Sully shooting the shit with Skiles, the flight attendants making small talk, and a few passengers conversing about their destination and New York City itself. From the plane’s takeoff to getting struck by birds, and the actual maneuver to the Hudson is pretty much played out in real time and it keeps you riveted even though most people watching this know everyone survived. And while I wouldn’t call the special effects great, the editing was effective enough to keep you invested throughout the scenes.
The pacing kicks up a notch once the plane makes contact with water and the rescue crews sweep in to collect everyone. And it’s here where a simple choice of casting makes all the difference as Hanks does a great job of communicating how much the real Captain Sully gave a shit about everyone aboard that flight. From remaining on the plane until all survivors had exited the aircraft to trying to get a headcount immediately to being delivered the news all 155 souls on board had survived. The switch from panic to concern to frustration and finally to relief is a wonderful moment in seeing Tom Hanks shine as he has done so many times before.
Honestly, if this was just a short film depicting everything I just described to you in the last two paragraphs, this would be a shoo-in for Best Short Film at the Academy Awards…but Clint Eastwood just had to make a feature length film. He just had to not settle for Best Short Film and shoot for Best Film of the Year. He just had to release a film on the weekend anniversary of September 11th that would be a significantly more hopeful story involving airplanes and New York City (to the point a character in the movie straight up tells you that significance to Sully’s own face). So it’s a damn shame that this movie just doesn’t hit the mark.
After the thrilling water landing, we’re dropped right back in the thick of the NTSB investigation where the officials are making Captain Sully severely doubt his decision to ditch the plane in the hudson through their computer generated models and flight data pointing to the fact he had enough altitude to land the aircraft safely (and undamaged). But none of this stuff is as remotely interesting as the actual ditching, and even less so than another film involving a pilot being investigated for an unorthodox flight maneuver that ended up saving several lives, Flight. While I wouldn’t call that a great film, it had a solid reason to keep you in the theater besides the actual plane crash: Denzel Washington’s character as the pilot was drunk during the entire ordeal and the movie becomes a character study of an alcoholic dealing with newfound fame and people turning to him as the reason the plane crashed in the first place.
But Sully was not secretly a piece of shit like Denzel’s character was, in fact the real life guy looks like a goddamn out-of-the-box American hero. Then you got Tom Motherfucking Hanks, America’s national treasure to portray him as every bit of righteous the real life guy looks. And while Captain Sully did an impressive feat, it’s really not a story that can be told in at least 88 minutes.
The odd choice to make the Miracle on the Hudson a featured length film all belongs to actor, director, writer, and even composer, Clint Eastwood. And it’s important I bring up the fact that Eastwood is a very conservative kind of guy, because his viewpoint affects the central conflict of the film: that the Federal Department of Transportation is trying to turn Sully into some kind of scapegoat for the whole incident. Sully fiercely disagrees with the Fedsas his 40 years of flight experience and his “feeling” of the aircraft told him he made the right decision. Therefore, Eastwood turns this movie into a battle between rugged American individualism versus stuffy, controlling bureaucrats. And while I do find it fascinating to get into an artist’s life and dispel the notion that we should “separate the art from the artist;” I just wish I could do it for a more meaty film, especially if he didn’t take the underlying concept from one of his own movies.
For you see, Sully reminded me of a coworker telling me just this week of Eastwood’s last acting performance, Trouble with the Curve. In that film, he plays an aging recruiter for a baseball team that’s being railroaded to retirement by a younger recruiter entirely reliant on computer simulations and metrics. Eastwood’s character ends up challenging the upstart’s pick for the team with his own pick, and (spoiler for a film nobody gave a shit about) ends up succeeding because he relied on his “instincts” and his decades of experience…sound familiar?
Keep in mind, I do not find this to be a bad film at all. It’s workmanlike, it’s functional, and it does the job in telling the tale of Flight 1549. The pacing and the demonization of the NTSB turned me off about the film, as well as the odd cuts in the story to the flashbacks of Sully’s life. Plus they replay the scene of the water landing once more in the climax (for a lack of a better term), but they offer no unique perspective that you have already witnessed. But the most glaring problem I had with the movie was Sully’s wife, played here by Laura Linney. She literally “phones in” her performance as she speaks to her husband from the comfort of their family home…and she never leaves this house for anything. I swear Linney probably finished all of her scenes in two measly hours. Plus the way her character behaved as the wife to someone who just survived a plane crash was off putting…it doesn’t sink in for her that her husband almost died a full five days AFTER the crash freaking happened. Bit late dear.
Even with my complaints, I still think people should check this movie out for the well put together water landing but it’s not worth a trip to the theaters for. Therefore, I’m giving this a very enthusiastic…