Even a likable and authoritative performance from Tom Hanks can’t keep this movie in the air. It’s a solemn and low-flying hagiopic from director Clint Eastwood about Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the remarkably courageous airline captain who in 2009 managed to land his damaged plane on New York’s Hudson river after geese flew into both his engines – and then got all his passengers off unharmed.
This oddly feels like a pious version of Robert Zemeckis’s rather better and more complex film Flight (2012) with Denzel Washington as the captain who saves lives with a risky move but gets stabbed in the back by corporate types who want to pin the blame on him. It may also remind you of comedian Bob Newhart’s famous routine about the captain answering passengers’ safety questions: “How long would the plane remain afloat if we ditch? Uhh … some of them go down like a rock, and some stay up for … I don’t know … two or three minutes.”
Sully’s “miracle on the Hudson” is tacitly offered to us in the same way as the news media presented it at the time – an inspirational example of leadership and a Hollywood ending to salve the trauma of 9/11. Hanks is the quietly heroic Sully and Aaron Eckhart is once again landed with a dull supporting role playing Sully’s stolidly supportive co-pilot, Jeff Skiles. Unlike Zemeckis’s Flight, which boldly put the crash right up front, this film hangs back, letting us at first just have Sully’s bad dreams and PTSD hallucinations before finally giving us the calamity for real – the exciting crash and then the tense rescue – and some of it again in flashback during the official inquiry hearing, in which duplicitous managers try to blame Sully to cover their asses. It winds up being anticlimactic, and the CGI for the big splashdown isn’t top-notch.
Laura Linney plays Sully’s tearful wife (another waste of talent), who has fraught conversations with him on the phone but, bizarrely, never has a face-to-face scene with Hanks. Did Sully really never lay eyes on his wife in the weeks following the crash? Of course, the implied message is that Sully is not merely a hero for the way he landed the plane, but also for the way he stood up to the pompous top brass afterwards. That’s probably true. But it all diverts us from the bigger, common-sense questions, such as whether there’s a serious, apparently uncorrected design fault that means a humble flock of geese can bring down a plane. There’s a good gag when a bartender tells Sully he has named a drink after him: Grey Goose with a splash of water.
This article was written by Peter Bradshaw, for theguardian.com on Thursday 1st December 2016 23.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010