Clint Eastwood’s last two films as director have both ended in ham-fisted hagiography. American Sniper—based on the autobiography of Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle—wasn’t entirely undone by its finale, given the many conflicted moments that came before. But Sully—about the US Airways pilot who made a successful emergency landing on the Hudson River in 2009—never really registers as much more than an honorary exercise.
Tom Hanks plays Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and his performance is about the only ambiguous element. During the investigation of the incident, it’s suggested early on that Sully could have made it to a runway rather than risk the passengers’ lives with a water landing. The movie as a whole doesn’t lend much credence to this—the investigators themselves are portrayed as a conspiratorial lynch mob—yet Hanks imbues the movie’s quieter moments with a tinge of self doubt. Hunched over at the edge of a bed in his hotel room, cast by cinematographer Tom Stern in deep shadows, Hanks physically suggests the question inside Sully’s head: Did he make the right decision?
Unfortunately, this is a question that Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay also asks, repeatedly and plainly. Sully dreams of a Katie Couric interview in which she wonders, “Are you a hero or a fraud?” (Side note: Couric is terrible at playing herself.) In one of the many phone conversations Sully has with his wife (a wasted Laura Linney), he even asks out loud, “What if I did blow this?” Perhaps the screenplay hammers at this note because Komarnicki knows there isn’t any other dramatic element to the story. (Except, of course, for the crash sequence itself, which is a genuine nail-biter and punctuated by a nice shot of Sully climbing the stairway of a rescuing ferry as the plane sinks into the water behind him.)
Overall, however, I never quite believed in the seeds of doubt that the screenplay was trying to sow. And neither, it turns out, does the movie. Sully concludes with a drawn-out public hearing that includes video of not one, not two, not three, but four(!) flight simulations designed to determine the validity of Sully’s decision. After that, we get a post-credits sequence with the real Sullenberger and the actual passengers, who publicly laud him for saving their lives. It’s heartwarming to see and certainly deserving, but also suggests that Sully would work better as a video exhibit at an aviation history museum than it does as a dramatic narrative.