It might have taken Frank Capra to do full justice to Chesley Sullenberger's saga as imagined by Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Tom Komarnicki. Eastwood, however, is too laconic a filmmaker to cultivate the necessary Capracorn, and so at 96 minutes Sully seems more padded than films of nearly twice its length. What's Capraesque about the Sullenberger story is how the pilot behind the January 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" becomes a persecuted cinderella man. The Sully filmmakers might have thought they'd fought most of their battle by figuring out an ingenious way to problematize a familiar story. The drama of Sully isn't really his forced water landing without fatalities, but Sullenberger's (Tom Hanks) subjection afterward to a NTSB inquiry that threatens his career and his pension. Any audience would be outraged instantly by this bureaucratic second-guessing of a self-evident hero, but from the NTSB standpoint Sullenberger wrecked a plane when computer models and some evidence seem to indicate that he could have piloted his crippled plane to an airport for a proper landing. This inquisition is inherently dramatic, but that inherent drama can only take the movie so far. Since impersonal bureaucratic thinking is at fault, rather than malice toward Sully or any sort of greed, we're left with a board of impersonal antagonists when the film really needs the sort of villain that Eastwood and Komarnicki are too scrupulous to imagine. For the libertarian Eastwood it may be enough to pit Sully against a mindless by-the-book system that can't account for or appreciate the sort of heroism he embodies: improvisation grounded in lived experience computer models can't anticipate. But the fact that Sully thrashes about in non-linear fashion through fits of flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations should have warned the director that his drama had a feeble heart.
Inevitably Komarnicki has to make stuff up to make a movie rather than a documentary, but he lacks the guts to fictionalize recent events in a manner that would really heighten the drama. In Capra films villains find ways to turn public opinion against the cinderella man, but since we know that never happened with Sullenberger the filmmakers don't dare pretend that it did. They're more intrigued by the irony of Sully facing career ruin at the same time that the public and media lionize him. The problem with that approach is that it takes the pressure off Sully whenever he isn't confronting the inquiry board. When they do fictionalize, it's purely for padding by making personalities (or attempting to) out of a handful of passengers. It's nothing but padding since we still know they won't die, whereas Capra's writers presumably would have had these subplots pay off by having these passengers appear as character witnesses for Sully, or simply to chastise the NTSB. Here they simply occupy space, as much of Sully does. At this point, however, we probably should credit Eastwood for keeping this obviously padded picture to 96 minutes, since it's possible that many other directors would drag it out beyond two hours. At its worst Sully is still competently directed and acted, though only Hanks has enough character development to be credited with a performance. It is, to no one's surprise, a very good performance, while Eastwood's direction is at its best in the lengthy rescue sequence involving an impromptu flotilla of dayliners and one foolhardy passenger who feels obliged to start swimming for shore on his own. He's more of a character than those who get more buildup. The rest of Sully's crew, including Aaron Eckhart's co-pilot and the flight attendants whose "Brace, brace, brace! Heads down, stay down!" chant is easily the most memorable part of the film, would have been better served with a more linear structure. After all, many movies manage to make well-known events suspenseful, so maybe Eastwood and Komarnicki gave up too soon on that idea. If they trusted the events to retain their inherent drama, and then hit audiences with their inquisitorial twist, they might have had a brilliant movie on their hands. On the evidence from the screening I attended, they've at least made a crowd-pleasing picture, but I suspect that the applause is more for the real Sullenberger, as unambiguous a hero as we have in America today, than for the picture that merely reminded them of his heroism.