Sully, at least plotwise, isn't a movie about United Airlines pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger (played here by Tom Hanks) miraculously landing a dead plane on the Hudson River and saving the lives of 155 passengers. It is mostly about what happened after that, and the question of whether the pilot did the right thing. The film builds itself around the investigation of the crash, with Sully struggling with the media spotlight, and bothered by all the questions being put forth by the panel assembled to look into what happened.
Ultimately, the film seems to say that it was wrong to question Sully at all for his decision to make a risky water landing on the Hudson River. It makes its position clear right at the very start, with an opening scene that shows a disastrous alternative version of events that has the plane crashing right in the middle of New York City. The film then continues to build the case that the pilot is beyond reproach, a series of flashbacks to the fateful day and to a couple of earlier episodes in his history depicting the subject as someone seemingly incapable of doing wrong.
As a result, this is a movie severely lacking in tension and human drama. This is a simple story of heroism told in a convoluted way, the film often repeating itself as stretches out its singular event over the length of a feature. And the point is the same every time: Sully was right. Sully was a perfect professional who did everything he could to save the lives of everyone on board. It is easy enough to agree with that assessment. By all accounts, Captain Sullenberger in real life is truly one of the most accomplished, most heroic pilots to every fly. But the movie making the point over and over again doesn’t actually make that case.
And in order to make this argument, the film basically makes villains out of the investigators of the National Transportation Safety Board. Even if we put aside that the depiction of the investigation doesn’t seem to reflect what actually happened in real life, it is trouble that the film shades them with disdain even though these investigators are similarly just trying to their job well. It becomes this strange Objectivist parable, a story railing against these government agents getting in the way of singular heroes with capabilities beyond the normal man.
When the film actually gets to what actually happened on that fateful day, it can be reasonably compelling. Taken outside the context of the argument that the film is making, the action is well staged, the movie basically able to bring the audience inside the aircraft. Tom Hanks plays Captain Sullenberger as a ball of discomfort mildly lacking in social graces. It’s an odd fit for an actor really known for his warmth. It’s not a bad performance, but it doesn’t always connect. Hanks is all there really is to this movie, the film squandering the links of Laura Linney and Anna Gunn in roles that the story doesn’t really seem invested in.
Sully is just an odd way to tell a story. It gives too much time to the investigation, building this straw man of government investigators seemingly intent on taking this hero down. It’s making an argument that nobody disagrees with: Captain Sullenberger was a hero. But it goes on and on, at one point having us watch less-than-thrilling footage of pilots in flight simulators all to make the point that Sully made all the right choices. It’s overselling the heroism of the man, lessening its value in the long run.