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Telluride Film Festival Review: SULLY

Telluride Film Festival Review: SULLY

When two lions of 1990s filmmaking team up you can expect solid popcorn entertainment. In Sully, Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood deliver that and then some, proving again they are masters at their game. But the film is nevertheless a straightforward paint-by-numbers exercise, with clearly defined heroes and villains, both peppered on top of straight-forward exposition, climax, and resolution. And like many of its type, the protagonists’ motivations in Sully are not always clear. They are instead cast aside for the sake of story-telling. But, hey, at least it’s good story-telling.

You know the main contours of the plot: one frosty January morning in 2009, U.S. Airways Captain Sullenberg miraculously and amazingly landed a plane on the Hudson River, 208 seconds after the jet’s engines had been knocked out by a flock of birds. What you may not be as familiar with is the entanglement that Eastwood uses to turn what should have been a twenty-five minute documentary into a feature length thriller. After the heroic landing, Sullenberg and his first mate (played with mustachioed fist-pounding bravado by Aaron Eckhart) were second-guessed by the government. The issue is whether the two unnecessarily endangered the passengers with the water landing, instead of returning the flight to the airport.

That is the glue holding the entire story together: the wringer through which the pilots are put through by officials. But, almost as if speaking to an empty chair, Eastwood never bothers to explain why the bureaucrats would want to crucify the heroes. Or why, for that matter, if they were so hell-bent on scapegoating them they did it so carelessly, quick to capitulate or embarrass themselves publicly with patently defective counterfactuals and half-baked conspiracy theories. The villains, in short, are cardboard cutouts, babbling baboons that you never actually take seriously as a threat. The entire problem is artificial and feels staged. The outcome is never in doubt.

But for that crucial error, though, Sully works. Shining through are the water-landing crash effects and the meticulous detail with which the entire disaster sequence is reconstructed. It’s both terrifying and reassuring in some perverse way. There is no doubt that Eastwood and Hanks are kings (and servants) of the old-school style of gripping, effects-driven drama surrounded by plot fluff.

Also impressive, as if I needed to tell you, is Hanks’ immersion into the character. While the two-time Oscar winner has started to typecast himself to a degree—there are shades of Captain Phillips in Captain Sullenberg, for example—his newly assumed self-deprecating, self-critical demeanor works well here. Hanks’ forte at this stage in his career is to portray the unwitting hero, the good, modest man that did not want to be thrust into the spotlight. It fits this character well, and he is helped by the emotional support of his wife, portrayed by Laura Linney (even though she’s relegated to holding a phone receiver to her face for most of the film).

But Sully distinguishes itself the most from all the movies that Hanks and Eastwood could have made—that they have made at various times—when it provides insight into the minds and hearts of individuals, particularly New Yorkers, as they react to the captain’s heroics. With startling and unexpected sincerity, peoples of all walks of life inform Sully that what he gave them was more than survival, it was hope. What the city and its denizens have needed, they explain, is good news, particularly when it comes to airplanes (to borrow a line from the movie). Hanks’ genuinely surprised reaction mimics that which Eastwood smartly anticipated the audience to have—even those of us who actually lived through the events at issue. It is when hitting those kitschy but important emotional notes that Sully shines brightest. True, the sequences of strangers hugging or kissing Sully, of offering him a drink or to pay for his cab ride are as stereotypical as the other tricks used to appeal to raw emotion. But at least these feel genuine, unlike the stooge government villains.

So if you expect to be entertained, you will be entertained in the most expected ways. The mood will turn gloomy when the hero is in trouble. He will awake startled from nightmares. Ominous threats will be issued and grave interviews will be granted. But then, in a time-tested feat not quite as heroic as Captain Sully’s maneuvers, but nonetheless impressive for its eternal effectiveness, the music will crescendo as truth wins out, the hero will be vindicated, and the audience will roar with applause.

Not quite the smoothest landing, but not a crash and burn, either.

Grade: B

About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, the pseudonym of a New York City-based writer, is a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online and has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age. JDB has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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