In many ways, Clint Eastwood's "Sully" is the polar opposite of his 2014 smash hit, "American Sniper." The story of Chesley Sullenberger's water landing in the Hudson River didn't carry much controversy in the press, and most mainstream media outlets posited him as a hero who saved the lives of the 155 people in his care. Yet the film spends a huge chunk of its running time focused on the National Transportation Safety Board's inquiry of the event, which found that he could have made it back to LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport instead of putting the plane in the Hudson.
''American Sniper" told the story of Chris Kyle, a SEAL who became the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. Some of the accounts in Kyle's book as well as some of the facts in the film have been questioned, but Eastwood's film focused more on the way the U.S. government treats vets more than any of the controversy.
Two years after taking a controversial story with rough edges and sanding most of them down, Eastwood and his screenwriters have basically taken a story with a happy ending and no controversy and manufactured it into something else. U.S. government officials are almost bigger villains than the Taliban in "American Sniper," just as the NTSB is almost mustache-twirlingly evil in "Sully."
After Sully lands the plane in the Hudson and all 155 souls are rescued, he basically spends the rest of the film (along with his co-pilot Jeff Skiles) being persecuted by the NTSB. The officials are looking to blame Sully for the water landing, insisting that every simulation showed he could have successfully made it to an airport alive. When Sully figures out a way to prove that he would have killed every passenger if he had tried, the entire audience cheered Tom Hanks' rousing speech against the idiotic federal baddies.
Depending on which media outlet you read, the real investigation found that the plane only successfully made it to airports in eight of the 15 simulations. Sully reviewed an early draft of the screenplay and (according to Hanks) thought the real-life NTSB investigation was less of a prosecutorial process, but that it was "inherently adversarial with professional reputations absolutely in the balance."
As well made as "Sully" is, with Eastwood portraying Sully in an almost saint-like light, and as good as Hanks is at playing a struggling everyman, the film is ultimately an exercise in manipulation. "Sully" portraying bureaucracy as the movie's villain turns the entire film into a giant straw man argument. Eastwood's attempt to demonize the NTSB for desperately attempting to lay blame on someone instead portrays Eastwood as an angry old man standing in front of the White House with a burning pitchfork.
In the sold-out auditorium where I saw the film, the room erupted in cheers when Hanks shut down the NTSB with his ninja-like logic and reason—but was sadly silent during the recreation of him saving the lives of 155 people on board US Airways Flight 1549. The real-life heroism of the movie is completely drowned out by the manufactured tension of the artificial villains. A routine government inquiry is made to look like a witch trial, and the quick-witted bad-assery of Chesley Sullenberger comes across as what's routine. America: Land of the free, home of the blame.
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX