Home » Years » 2016 » Sully •••1/2

Sully •••1/2

sully_xxlgStarring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Todd Komarnicki, Chesley Sullenberger
Biography/Drama, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it looks like someone wants to avoid a sullied reputation.

Sully rabbit, tricks are for kids. Let’s take a look at the latest movie from Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood:

We meet Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a veteran US Airways pilot. He’s recovering from the aftermath of an emergency landing he had to make on the Hudson River shortly after Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport. His co-pilot that day was Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).

But instead of being treated like a hero, the National Transportation Safety Board wants to prove that he made a huge mistake. Instead of landing in the Hudson, they think he should have landed at either LaGuardia or Teterboro. This leads Sully to question his own decision making. The rest of the film answers the question: Is Sully a hero, or incompetent.

Greg, this movie taps into the powerful archetype of the hero who is wrongly accused of villainy and must spend the entire storyline trying to establish his innocence. As such, this is a movie that deliberately makes you feel uncomfortable. You’re uncomfortable with the idea of a sinking plane maneuvering through Manhattan skyscrapers. You feel the discomfort of a man who is tortured with the burden of the ‘hero’ label. You’re frustrated with an NTSB board that seems hellbent on proving that Sully made a reckless choice to land in the Hudson.

This movie, along with Tom Hanks, deserve Oscar consideration. Even though we know the story’s ending, we’re never really sure how we’ll get there. The hero’s journey is extremely unconventional, with much of the film devoted to flashbacks of the hero’s descent (literally) into the dangerous, unfamiliar world of double-engine failure on the jet plane. But even more so it is a film about the hero’s subsequent descent into the dangerous, unfamiliar worlds of unwanted fame, family turmoil, accusations of wrongdoing, and courtroom drama. It’s a movie that really shouldn’t work but somehow does, with the whole becoming greater than the sum of its parts.

Scott, I was less enthusiastic about this movie than you. The fact is, Sullenberger is an unqualified hero. Sadly, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a great story. Sully is the most boring of heroes – he simply did his job extremely well and saved 155 lives. But to create a story around this, you have to have a goal and you have to have a villain to thwart that goal. Director Clint Eastwood creates a goal of surviving the NTSB inquisition, which makes the NTSB the villains. It’s clumsily executed. The movie ends in an unrealistic courtroom scene that left me feeling the whole movie was a made up story.

From where I was sitting in the audience, the plot was more suited to a made-for-tv movie than a big-screen extravaganza. It sounds like it would be great as it has a true-to-life hero in Sully, big-time director Eastwood, and America’s favorite leading man, Tom Hanks. But scene after scene seemed stilted and put on.

As a case in point, let’s look at what they did to Sully’s poor wife. She’s portrayed as a harried homemaker who was more concerned about whether they were going to lose their summer home than the fact that her husband survived a near-fatal crash. She keeps asking when he’ll be home when she knows he is fighting for his professional life. Now, this is not done to show how unsupportive the real Mrs. Sullenberger was. But rather, to expose to the audience what was at stake for Sully. It’s handled clumsily and throws poor Mrs. Sully under the bus in exchange for exposition. And that’s straight out of the Hallmark Home Movie tradition.

My only quibble is that the movie glossed over the skill it took to land a plane successfully on water. At the time (in 2009), there were numerous stories, all fascinating, of the specific technique needed to bring the plane down on the water’s surface without it plunging immediately to the river bottom. Apparently, Sully had to maneuver the jet to emulate a bird landing on the water, an image and skill that the vast majority of people are unfamiliar with. This achievement should have been highlighted as a major reason behind Sully’s heroism. In addition, it is also true that Sully was saving his own life in landing that plane safely, so to say that he was completely selfless is untrue.

Still, the accomplishment was remarkable and Clint Eastwood deserves kudos for putting together a movie that serves as a worthy tribute to this truly humble hero who wanted no part of the hero label. The handling of the bumbling NTSB and the histrionic wife didn’t particularly bother me that much, except for the apparent fact that these two elements of the story departed from reality quite a bit. In typical Clint style, this movie is about a man who sticks it to “the man”. Sully is a kinder, gentler Dirty Harry.

As far as mentorship goes, Sully’s mentor is hard to identify but I think we have hinted at the type of indirect mentor at work in this hero’s life. We’ve seen movies like The Martian in which there is an “implicit mentor” whose training of the hero helped him survive an ordeal. We’ve also seen films like London Has Fallen where the hero is not an actual person but a code of ethics or behavior that the hero lives by. With Sully we see hints of these two types of mentorship at work in Sully’s life. His 42 years of aviation experience were instrumental (pardon the pun), as was mentorship from his father which is hinted at in a brief flashback scene.

Sully is a flawed biopic about a true American hero. They don’t make heroes better than Captain Sullenberger. I enjoyed the film but I can’t get past the unskilled use of the NTSB and Sully’s wife as foils. Compare to the excellent Eye in the Sky which we reviewed earlier this year. In that film both sides of an argument were presented without bias. There was no need to make the NTSB the villains – except to further the narrative that Sully was a persecuted hero. I give Sully just 3 out of 5 Reels.

There’s not doubt that Sully is a hero. By just about any measure one has to appreciate the fact that it was Sully’s devotion to his craft and trade that allowed him to be the right man in the right place at the right time. Then he went further by being so humble about his heroism. I give Sully 5 out of 5 Heroes.

As you point out, Scott, Sully doesn’t expose his mentors directly. It is his training that gives him the strength to pull off the impossible feat of saving 155 souls on a flight that should have crashed. I give Sully’s mentorship 3 out of 5 Mentors.

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Sully is yet another triumph for ageless director Clint Eastwood. This movie relies on the time-honored archetype of the hero who is falsely accused of villainy, and much of the successful use of this formula can be attributed to the acting genius of Tom Hanks. No actor could better capture Sullenberger’s earnest humility, moral caring, and quiet competence better than Hanks. This film is a winner and easily earns 4 Reels out of 5.

As I’ve noted, the hero’s journey takes a nontraditional route by first giving us flashbacks of Sully’s recent hero journey involving double-engine failure and a river landing. Then we witness Sully’s subsequent hero’s journey that is less physically dangerous yet more emotionally distressing, in which he must deal with antagonists such as the media, his wife, and the NTSB. Clint Eastwood weaves these two hero’s tales together with great flair and effectiveness. I give our hero Sullenberger a rating of 4 Heroes out of 5.

The mentorship here is subtle, complex, yet pivotal for our hero’s success. Sullenberger’s past training and experience were his strongest allies in the cockpit that day in the air. His father also guided him capably. Later, on the ground and in the unwelcome limelight, Sullenberger flounders about with little mentoring to help him other than his own personal integrity and steadfast confidence that he made all the right moves on that airplane. The mentoring in this movie is present yet elusive. As such, I’ll bump the rating down a bit to 3 Mentors out of 5.

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