Total time between US Airways 1549's double engine failure and Captain Chesley Sullenberger's emergency landing in the Hudson River: 208 seconds. Total passengers injured: zero.
Total time of Sully, Clint Eastwood's film about the flight: 96 minutes. How do you create drama out of three and a half tense minutes that climaxed in a national group hug? By Eastwood concocting his fight. His favorite fight: a quiet man's battle to be deemed a hero. Eastwood’s spent his career battling for respect, even after he’s been bronzed. He played the Wild West's best gunshot, directed the Iraq War's best sniper, and between those films marshaled a parade of soldiers and jocks and lovable cranks. Now he defends Tom Hanks's bristle-stashed, monotone Captain Sully, a man who was immediately hailed as America's most magnificent pilot but in Eastwood's hands is hounded by shadow-enemies whispering — as they might in Eastwood's nightmares — that despite the applause, he isn't a great guy after all.
These are skirmishes fought against straw-villains for manipulated cheers. Eastwood picks real-life men he respects and pits titans against fools. In one corner, we have good ol' Sully, a guy so swell he not only insists on paying for a free drink named in his honor — a Grey Goose with a splash of water, yuk yuk — he tips the star-struck bartender quadruple. In the other corner is everyone else: the driver who screams at Sully for jogging in the road, the bank that threatens to foreclose on his house, and worse, the National Transportation Safety Board pencil-pushers who argue that after the flock of seagulls took out the Airbus's engines, Sully should have flown back to La Guardia.
Nerds, not birds, are the bad guys. So much so that when the movie starts, the plane crash has already happened. Make that the "forced water landing," insists Sully, when he awakens from a nightmare to find himself living in a real one — an acid-tinged inquisition where know-nothing suits hope to blame the disaster on him. Had he slept? Eight hours. Drank? No. Drugs? No. Sugar? No. They want him to talk about, ugh, his feelings. How is his home life? Fine. He regularly calls home to his wife (Laura Linney), who lives somewhere in vague, golden suburbia where the buttery walls match her hair. Sorry, dorks. Sully is perfect. When he gets his pulse checked, the doctor giddily declares his heart rate is "extraordinary!"
Still, the wonks' computer simulators say that his left engine hadn't blown up, that he made the wrong choice. "Engineers are not pilots," says calm-as-a-glider Sully to fictitious investigator Charles Porter (Mike O'Malley). "They weren't there." He's been helming a crew for 40 years — just like Eastwood — and both men think their critics are stooges. If you don't believe them, just listen to the "real" people Eastwood crowds into the frame, dock workers and lifeguards and baseball fans, all men in blue-collar uniforms, who crow that Sully's the greatest even when he starts to doubt it himself.
Sully is the greatest. But Eastwood protests too much. Without context, Eastwood inserts a flashback to Sully's Air Force service to prove he could land a broken plane on a runway if that was the right call. And for backup he gives us First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully's co-pilot and hype man, who continually hoots his praise. Skiles sneers the things Saint Sully is too nice to say. Of the NTSB, Skiles growls, "They're playing Pac-man when we had a cargo of human beings!" As for real-life investigator Robert Benson, who led the Flight 1549 team, he's stuck sighing to the press this week that “We’re not the KGB. We’re not the Gestapo. ... We’re the guys with the white hats on.”
Tom Hanks is so quietly compelling that he gives the film an illusion of depth. He can play a tough-luck captain. Hell, he just did it three years ago in Captain Phillips, another honorific, but one that at least had the guts to let his good captain cry. Hanks's only frailty in Sully is an early shot in a dark bathroom where light puddles in the hollow of his eyes. For the first time, Hanks looks old. Which, to Eastwood, is a compliment. To him, old means wise, hardened, decisive, commanding of respect — not some movie-star pretty boy. In the first act, Sully spends more time in the makeup chair than the pilot's chair as he prepares to go on TV, and though Hanks has spent his whole life getting groomed for the camera, he manages to look as awkward as a cat in a tuxedo.
The ghost of 9/11 silently haunts the movie, with several cheap CGI visions of the plane smashing into Manhattan buildings. When Sully's Airbus buzzes offices, the people inside turn to the windows and gawk. Nobody screams. Perhaps there wasn't time. Finally, one of Sully's colleagues says the unspeakable. "It's been a while since New York has had good news this good. Especially with an airplane in it." Sully can't respond.
Instead, Eastwood salutes a crash where everyone did their job. He films the ferry boats handily coming to the rescue, the scuba cops plunging into the water to save the few who thought they could swim to shore, and shot after shot of the Red Cross wrapping shaken survivors in warm blankets. I was startled that every extra was white. Is this how Eastwood still pictures America? Then over the end credits, he showed the actual passengers. They were all white. Fair enough.
Sully is fascinating as a study of Eastwood's persecution complex, his fear that not everyone in the world adequately worships an accomplished white man. The film can't end until everyone — literally every last person — gives Sully and Skiles the bureaucrat equivalent of an '80s slow clap. Or, in the case of Anna Gunn's NTSB agent, a fuck-me look at Skiles that's so randy I checked to see whether his character wore a wedding ring. Yet to Sully, the only approval that matters is his own. When he's certain he did the right thing, his shoulders straighten with pride. That's all.
He doesn't need the Board's apologies. But after an hour and a half of Eastwood demanding that he does, the audience deserves the payoff of Sully enjoying his triumph, or at least a cocky grin. The Eastwood machine has proven Sully's worth as a Senior Pilot. In this dragged-out climax, though, we'd prefer a Petty Officer.