Despite being one of the most charming actors of the last 30 years and one of Hollywood’s most celebrated stars, Tom Hanks’ recent career hasn’t had the reliability of some of the newer contenders for Biggest Movie Star, like Leonardo DiCaprio or Ryan Gosling. We’ve been more than lucky to have the superb Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies, but the last few years have also brought us Larry Crowne and A Hologram for the King. Now, with the utterly dire Sully on his resume, the last five years may have tipped into more miss than hit for Hanks, making for yet another reason among many to fervently hate this Clint Eastwood-directed misfire.
Chesley Sullenberger (Hanks), known as ‘Sully’, became world famous in the early months of 2009 for successfully landing his geese-stricken passenger plane in New York’s Hudson River without a single life lost. 155 people were on the plane, and 155 made it home. It’s an inspiring headline, but the interesting part of the story, the landing itself, lasted around three minutes. There’s no actual conflict here – the opening scene shows promise in maybe exploring the PTSD and impostor complex that come with surviving a plane crash and being hailed a hero, but this is only occasionally followed up on, and never with the commitment this theme needs.
To pad out the 96-minute runtime (though it feels like over two hours), writer Todd Komarnicki adds an investigation into Sully’s actions, the outcome of which is never in doubt. Every decision he made was the best one, and no-one died, so the inquiry is purely for insurance purposes, a less than riveting motive. Robert Zemeckis’ Flight is Sully’s closest cinematic relation, and whilst that Denzel Washington vehicle was not good, it at least had the added interest of the lead being an alcoholic. Without any actual dive into Sullenberger’s character beyond his competence and experience, the vast majority of the film feels totally pointless.
Whilst Hanks inevitably provides depth and warmth to his character when he can lift himself out of the quagmire that is this script, the other leads are so horrendously underserved that they really can’t make anything work. Laura Linney turns in a tired, unengaged performance as the obligatory ‘wife on the phone’ cypher. Aaron Eckhart’s co-pilot character is saddled with lines like ‘it wasn’t a videogame, it was life and death’ and ‘it wasn’t a simulation, it was life and death’ (these two near-identical howlers are delivered within about four minutes of one another). Some of the fateful flight’s passengers are given some semblance of backstory, but when it’s not drowning in clichés, the stories for these characters are hideously overwritten. Always using five words when one will do, it soon becomes so frustrating that it’ll take restraint to not just yell at the screen.
Eastwood’s clear-eyed, desaturated visual style is perfectly competent, and an early dream sequence actually approaches excitement, but the fundamental building blocks of Sully are so utterly terrible that this decent direction is irrelevant. Nothing illustrates the awfulness of Sully better than its climax, the final deposition where Sully will either be exonerated and exalted or stripped of his flying rights. Not only are Aaron Eckhart’s ‘life and death’ lines delivered here, but we get to watch four near-identical computer simulations of the same crash that we’ve already seen thrice, including the simulations’ 35-second wait period.
Having the crescendo of your film include about 2 minutes of background actors looking at boring, static graphics is a truly baffling decision, as is the very last scene. Closing on an insipid joke before fading straight to black, it took me a good few moments to process that the whole debacle had actually ended. In a year where we’ve already had a truly fantastic true-life tale of ordinary heroism in Deepwater Horizon, the complete absence of tension and character in Sully is unforgivable, making for easily the worst film I’ve seen in 2016.