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You just got hugged by a total stranger.

Sully
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The only intriguing thing about Sully entering production was how Warner Bros could wrap a movie around a non-existent story (Birds! Brave Wing Commander Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger lands on a river! They’re all safe! – okay, that’s 10 minutes filled; curiously, with all this spare time, no one thought to tell the birds’ story, a tragic plotline Pixar likely wouldn’t go near). Half that poser was answered by Clint Eastwood taking the gig, a director who can stretch any given material beyond the bounds of narrative sense simply by omitting to employ an editor. The other half? Well, you have to sort-of admire the rigour with which the same crash (I mean, forced landing) is repeated again and again and again, as if it somehow merits the same level of analysis as the JFK assassination. Which was more than twice the length (the film, that is), never once became boring, and still could have been (possibly I exaggerate) twice the length again.


Sully isn’t bad as such, but for all that Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart are dependable and solid and all, and that some of the plot motors work in an appreciably cranking-up-the-clichés way – “Why don’t we employ Mike O’Malley as Mr Nasty National Transportation Safety Board guy, since he always plays a Mr Nasty, especially in true life movies? Why, look how nasty he was to nice Mr Smith in Concussion; he could be really nasty to nice Mr Hanks here, and so elicit maximum sympathy for Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who doesn’t exactly need much of the stuff anyway, obviously, since everyone simply adores him” – and that there is, in the sheer fact of the incident, a genuinely impressive kernel in respect of the ditching that retains interest, it is utterly, utterly wafer thin.


I knew far in advance, because of all the reviews, and the two-month transatlantic lag in release dates (Sully is doing better than I expected outside of its home turf, so brand Hanks must still have some life in it; either that, or everyone simply adores Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger globally), that much of the picture revolved around Sully’s perceived, exacerbated tribulations at the hands of the crash investigators, and that his PST of running through different outcomes in his head over what he might have transpired (disaster porn, basically) further beefed things up. But even with these attempts to inflate drama into a flaccid scenario, to suggest a dramatic arc, Eastwood can’t really bring himself to force the story too far into the bounds of hyperbole; it just isn’t his style.


I mean, he can’t really paint a portrait of a man who underwent extreme vilification when everyone in fact adoringly proclaimed him a hero, so the doubt has to be a sneaking doubt. As a consequence, the possibility that the simulations of the crash showed him to be in error by taking the course of action he did becomes the main dramatic thrust, the truth pivoting on Sully’s 40-year reputation and experience. Thus, the final scene gives us the works of tension-laden climaxes, of live pilot sims, of Sully launching into a marvellously praiseworthy speech, and of astonishing last-minute news that the recovery of the engines has confirmed Sully’s claims. And even then, Clint can’t work up that much in the way of excitement.


Indeed, much of this is so sheepishly half-slung, it could be a TV movie, particularly with Eastwood’s appallingly drippy, tinkly piano sugar-coating it. There’s even footage of the actual Sully and reunited passengers come the credits, representative of a culmination of all the prior revering affirmations of the wonders of NY’s finest coming together. As someone says, being nothing if not on the nose, but the movie’s nothing if not that, NY needed a positive plane story…


Occasionally, there’s a glimmer of another, more probing level; the suggestion of self-doubting what one knows to be true in the face of cross-examination and hindsight, for instance. But it’s only a glimmer, and nothing ever comes of it because of Sully’s staunch self-belief. Hanks doesn’t put a foot wrong, but honestly he’s less interesting here than he is A Hologram for the King; serious Hanks is reliable, but never astounding.


Eckhart rocks a seriously mighty tache, in a slight, subordinate role he makes the most of. Elsewhere (very much so), I hope Laura Linney was well paid because her role is entirely ghastly and entirely on the other end of a telephone.


That the picture is already being named on end of the year Top Ten lists (AFI, National Board of Review) either says something about the unquestionable elder statesmen status of Hanks and Eastwood or the ease with which simple wholesome platitudes and life-affirming incidents are gorged on by dupable critics. There’s nothing here that’s all that great, nothing here that’s all that awful (the score aside; although, with all the money thrown at computer games these days, you’d have thought the air industry could throw a few bucks at better flight sim graphics).


Clint’s 35th feature as a director is adequate, overlong (despite being a very short movie by today’s standards) and terribly inoffensive, so I guess it makes an effective contrast to the inadequate, overlong and controversial American Sniper. It’s a decade now since Eastwood’s made a really good movie, though, and with him heading towards 90, I suspect more average fare is in inevitably on the cards. Perhaps, as with his contrasting perspectives on the Pacific conflict, he could now turn his hand to retelling Sully from those seagulls’ POV?


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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