Every cinematic story, especially those based on real life, can be seen as a string. Lives and events are spun out long before and after the couple of hours we see, into the infinite horizon. So the first and most important decision the director and screenwriter make is where to cut that string -- determining what forms the movie's beginning, middle and end.
I'm not sure if I agree with where Clint Eastwood and Todd Komarnicki placed their cuts in relaying the tale of Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who ditched US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River on a frigid January day in 2009 after double engine failure, saving everyone onboard. But I still admired and enjoyed their version of what has now become legend.
I think the filmmakers felt the need to invent some villains to create dramatic tension, overplaying the investigation of the incident into some kind of Salem witch hunt that did not really amount to much at all. Sully and his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles (an excellent Aaron Eckhart), were quickly lauded as heroes for their actions -- national media appearances, awards ceremonies, a White House visit, the whole kielbasa.
Sure, the National Transportation Safety Board members asked some hard questions; that's their job. But, as portrayed by Anna Gunn, Mike O'Malley and Jamey Sheridan, they form the triumvirate of bad guys the story didn't really need, jumping to conclusions and issuing threatening statements that we know they're going to eventually have to eat.
(Needless to say, their real-life counterparts are none too happy.)
It ends up too much resembling "Flight," a 2012 film starring Denzel Washington as a fictional pilot who is initially lauded as a hero, then excoriated for recklessness. (A friend dubs this new film "White Flight.")
Despite the Hollywood-izing of the events, it's still a grand tale. The main challenge comes in Tom Hanks playing a guy who is, by any objective measure, ill-suited for the role of film protagonist. His Sully is mild-mannered, duty-bound and courteous, diffident to the point of often coming across as a bit of a stiff.
Hanks pulls it off by showing us a man who is outwardly brave and stoic, but inwardly reels from nightmares and doubts about his actions that day.
Indeed, I think that is what makes the story of Sullenberger so compelling, in real life and onscreen: here is an unremarkable man, who plied his trade in virtual anonymity for four decades. In his golden hour, months before forced retirement at age 60, he used his skill and experience to pull off something extraordinary.
The universality of this theme is obvious: Sully became a hero, and you could, too.
After a flock of Canada geese pummeled the aircraft shortly after takeoff, destroying both engines, Sully had 208 seconds of glide time before hitting the ground. After he and Skiles exhausted all their options, trying to restart the engines and communicating with ground control on possible emergency landing sites, Sully quickly determined they wouldn't make it. "I eyeballed it," he tells stunned investigators.
He steered his Airbus A320 toward the Hudson, and history was made.
The film chooses to show us the crash three times. First, a mere glimpse at the very beginning. A more detailed version starts about 30 minutes in. Then, a comprehensive take that forms the final act, showing us the aftermath and rescue by river ferry crews and police scuba divers.
"Sully" hits its emotional peak in the center, when the pilot is scrambling to account for everyone on board, who have been taken by different conveyance to various hospitals and such. We can see the terror in Hanks' eyes, wondering how many people have died. When he's finally given the total -- 155 souls, everyone onboard safe -- the catharsis is like a swell of pure joy.
It's dangerous for critics to play the "If I was making this movie" game, but I think that was the film's obvious ending point. Instead we get another half-hour to 45 minutes of meetings, tense phone calls between Sully and his wife (Laura Linney), and an odd encounter in a bar where Sully is recognized and offered the drink they have named after him.
"Grey Goose with a splash of water," the barman smirks.
The narrative is a bit twisted around into unnecessary knots for my taste, but "Sully" still soars when it has to.