Clint Eastwood’s sloppy ‘Sully’ film works overtime to tell us what we already know about the Miracle on the Hudson

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It’s difficult to recall a film that tries harder to manufacture a storyline and then undercuts its own dramatic tension more than “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s clumsy telling of airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s miraculous landing of a commercial jet on New York’s Hudson River on a frigid day in January 2009.

It is commonly accepted that Sully was a hero for his actions that day. What “Sully” presupposes is: Maybe he wasn’t?

The film goes out of its way to plant doubts in the head of the filmgoer and Sullenberger himself — played with quiet dignity by America’s first captain, Tom Hanks — that maybe his actions were out of line that day, despite his perfectly executed water landing which resulted in the saving of all 155 lives on board his Charlotte-bound US Airways flight.

“Sully” finds Hanks facing strict questioning by the National Transportation Safety Board, who is looking to find fault in his actions. Should he have turned around to LaGuardia, or could he have landed at another nearby airport? Was there indeed a better option than landing in the water, despite the retention of every life on board?

The public’s familiarity with “Sully’s” story should make these answers clear. So rather than offering any new twists, “Sully” drags viewers through a playground of false scenarios and narrative sleight of hand before arriving at what we already know.

The script by Todd Komarnicki (based on Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty”) makes the curious decision to make the passengers and flight crew anonymous faces, aside from Aaron Eckhart’s co-pilot. We briefly meet a father and two sons on their way to a golf outing but that’s it; everyone else might as well have sacks over their heads.

We do spend some time with Sullenberger as he wrestles with his actions after the landing, but the details of his life outside the cockpit are only hinted at. We see his early pilot days and we get several scenes of him talking to his wife (Laura Linney plays Mrs. Sullenberger, and is on the phone with Sully in most of her scenes), but other facets of his life are glossed over. He owns some property and is having trouble making payments, he occasionally has marital issues, but these facts are mentioned and then stowed away in the overhead compartment.

Aside from that, Eastwood further deflates the impact of the landing by staging it multiple times. The landing is rendered in heart-stopping detail in a masterfully executed sequence that comes midway through the film. When it comes back around again later it’s repetitive, like playing the same song in concert a second time.

Hanks, just three years removed from “Captain Phillips,” brings the honor and nobility that only he can to Sullenberger, and in a better movie would be worthy of awards consideration. But “Sully” doesn’t give him enough to do besides be good ol’ honorable Tom Hanks, because “Sully” isn’t interested in going anywhere new. Watching the movie, you can feel Eastwood hurrying up to finish to move on to his next thing.

And maybe there wasn’t anywhere else to go. The story of the landing doesn’t need further dramatization or embellishment, it was amazing in and of itself. It was an instance where multiple units in New York came together to save a lot of lives, and there are seeds of that story “Sully,” but not enough to make it grow.

The real life Sully and passengers from the plane are seen in the end credits, giving “Sully” the human touch it otherwise lacks. It should have been the movie’s starting point, not its end.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Sully’

GRADE: C-

Rated PG-13: for some peril and brief strong language

Running time: 96 minutes

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