In January 2009, Chesley Sullenberger successfully ditched a commercial airliner in the Hudson River, averting what would have been a massive plane wreck. Now, Clint Eastwood has made things right by making a biopic about him that is just as big of a wreck as the one he avoided.
Sully is the
true story of Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), that fateful flight and its aftermath. Heading out of LaGuardia Airport in New York City, Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) run into a flock of geese that destroy both engines, turning their passenger airliner into a very expensive kite at just 2,818 feet. Instead of crashing into the most densely populated city in the world and killing everyone on board and hundreds if not thousands of pedestrians, Sullenberger glided the plane onto the Hudson River, a course of action which caused no one to die. The movie centers around an internal investigation from three unnecessarily antagonistic stooges who are terrible at their jobs (Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan and Anna Gunn) trying to answer the question, “Would it be better if he’d just let everyone die?”
Biopics have been all the rage in recent Oscar seasons and have become a bit of an art form on their own. Artistic license is the norm, and usually the more artistic license is taken, the better the movie is, but there’s still a responsibility the movie has to reality. Biopics don’t have to tell the truth and nothing but the truth, but they need to at least have a consistent relationship with the truth and tell an essentially true story. Last year’s Steve Jobs is a fantastic example — it couldn’t possibly be literally true, but the facts they reference are correct and the essential story, that Steve Jobs was a horrible prick, is true. The filmmakers found the heart of his true story and told it in the best possible way.
Sully does not come close to the heart of Sullenberger’s true story, and the shriveled semblance of a narrative it does have is told disjointedly. These problems are often intertwined — the movie does a terrible job of pulling viewers into its world, so everything that happens in that world seems unrealistic and tough to believe. Then you look it all up and learn that most of the problematic elements are complete fiction. There are also several extremely tacky elements.
The script is awful. For as much as Sullenberger rails on about human error and having real human beings in the cockpit for simulations, no one in this movie feels like a real human being because their dialogue is so awful. On a macro level, the narrative structure is loose at best — most of the time it seems like the movie doesn’t really know where it’s going from scene to scene. The tone is mostly vague paranoia and tension, then it jumps to a straight disaster movie for the first flashback that forces a bunch of stupid characters on viewers so they’ll care more about the passengers’ survival.
This is the movie at its stupidest — and most enjoyable — the part where it tries to convince me that, after a relatively safe landing, these people are in actual danger of dying from just 24 minutes of exposure. It centers around stupid, panicky people doing stupid, panicky things and expects to be taken seriously.
Way too much of the movie is centered around the idea of this danger — specifically the danger of that landing, not the danger of losing your engines at 2,818 feet. That’s understated. Everyone in the movie is focused on how miraculous it was that no one was killed in the landing, and to watch the movie you need to accept that it was a dangerous thing as well, but it really wasn’t. Water landings in commercial airliners are rough, but it’s very rare for anyone to die on impact. Most of the time when people do die it’s because they’re too far out in the ocean for help to arrive in time, but they were crashing into one of the most well-traveled waterways in the world. The situation could have gone a lot of different directions that would have been more dangerous, but once the plane was over the Hudson, everybody was pretty much safe.
The flight sequences necessarily have a lot of shots of an airplane flying low around New York City, and several shots of New Yorkers looking up from their office buildings. The plight of that poor airplane is clearly the last thing on their minds. The Sept. 9 release date is probably the tackiest thing about this movie.
The film also tries to draw tension from the investigators, who are ridiculous and stupid just within the confines of the movie, waiting until the last seconds of the vaguely climactic hearing scene to get vital information. But then, they fudge the details — in the movie, 20 out of 20 computer simulations made it back to LaGuardia and they say both human simulations did the same, though they gave the test pilots a million practice runs that Sullenberger obviously wouldn’t have had and tried to hide it, and there’s also some question about whether or not the left engine really failed. None of that is true. There were 15 human simulations and eight of them made it to an airport safely, and that was with a 35 second head start.
While fudging the details in biopics is definitely OK, these fudgings are important because they make up the core of the movie. The filmmakers didn’t really know how to find conflict or tension in Sullenberger’s story, so instead of dramatizing real events, they made stuff up. The only ostensible excuse for this movie is as a tribute to the man who stayed cool under pressure and saved more than 100 people, and this isn’t his story at all.
This is a difficult story to approach, but there are definitely ways to do it. Play up the genuinely unbelievable elements, mostly how damaging the birdstrike was. Focus on how much Sullenberger broke from protocol in handling the crash and why he made the decisions he made. Maybe take a longer timeline and create a story about how hero worship damages the hero. Focus more on the hopeless atmosphere of January 2009, still in the throes of a stupidity based economic recession. That’s part of why this news was received so well at the time — the housing market had just crashed, and a lot of people were in a dark place looking for something good to happen. It’s something the movie touches on but doesn’t explore in any kind of depth.
But if you’re making a movie about someone’s heroism, you shouldn’t need to exaggerate the heroism to make a movie about it. Telling nice lies about the man is no form of tribute.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.