The story of the Miracle on the Hudson is about the triumph of quick-thinking ingenuity and a testament to the value of experience and skill in dangerous situations.
Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s river landing on that fateful day in January 2009, which saved all 155 passengers on his U.S. Airways jet, will forever live in aviation lore.
To pass muster as the subject of a feature film, however, requires more than that feel-good reality. It demands something beyond a reenactment of the terrifying experience from the time a flock of birds took out the plane’s engines to the safe, unlikely landing and subsequent rescue, however expertly staged.
It needs a compelling internal conflict, or some other form of struggle, that takes a sudden near-disaster and elevates it to the heights of grand human drama, by offering something new or unexpected about the players involved, or otherwise providing a level of insight that could not be gleaned from news coverage.
And that element is missing from “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s take on the central event and the efforts of Sullenberger (portrayed with characteristic earnestness by Tom Hanks) to process what happened.
Saturated with shots of Hanks as Sullenberger staring forlornly at the Hudson River, wracked with guilt over the possibility that he could’ve made it to an airport and beset by nightmares amid a National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the movie attempts to approach things from a psychological perspective.
The screenplay, by Todd Komarnicki and based on the book Sullenberger co-wrote about those harrowing few minutes in the air, chops up the chronology and takes a comprehensive look at the event and the way its principal figure perceived it.
But Sullenberger is, fundamentally, not that interesting of a protagonist. He’s so downright heroic, so evidently in the right in terms of his actions, that his struggles don’t resonate. He’s a good, hard-working professional who achieved something remarkable. So, the movie is left with little to complicate things but self-doubt. And self-doubt is not the most compelling of big-screen dramatic conflicts generally, especially in this situation.
There’s little suspense in the particulars of the governmental investigation, because the movie makes it abundantly clear that there was no other course of action but to land in the Hudson. So, while the sound-and-fury spectacle of that sequence stands among Eastwood’s finest achievements, there’s not enough to the rest of the narrative to justify the investment of time and energy required. Some wonderful and life-affirming stories simply don’t need a big screen treatment.