Clint Eastwood steps behind the camera once again with Sully, his first feature since the double dose of Jersey Boys and American Sniper in 2014 and J.Edgar in 2011. His preoccupation with biographical dramas about notable American males has been one of peaks — Bradley Cooper’s performance in American Sniper — and valleys — the abundance of moments in American Sniper where Eastwood’s eye smothers the story. Sully fits into this scenario on paper and in execution.
That said, it is the best picture Eastwood has made since Changeling — though, for me, at least, it still isn’t in the same league. Where Sully has the advantage is in Tom Hanks, who could take a role as a realistic CGI turd and make it charming (though his subject here made it much, much easier on him), and an extremely lean 95-minute runtime. The story needed stretching to reach even this length, but the upshot is this limits the opportunities for Eastwood to insert himself at the cost of the story.
Most of the time, Sully is an even-keeled portrait of a man who did this amazing thing, but is, ultimately, just a guy. Tom Hanks is at his Everyman best as he attempts to wrap his head around the situation. He has to reconcile not only the outcome and the residual effects, but media attention and an investigation into his actions. Yes, the outcome was miraculous, but was his course to get there right in the first place? All of this is very human, and it’s what works best about the film, along with Hanks. The film is based on the book written by the titular man himself, and there are many moments that have the ring of personal experience. They are simple, logical and naturalistic.
However, there are moments that begin to feel forced, and a bit of paranoia (intentional or otherwise) creeps in to put a haze over the portrait. There’s Sully running, almost entirely alone though Times Square. News coverage of the crash surrounds him on every screen, as if we need stories-tall video beaming down on him to glean that this is an overwhelming situation. News clips are inflammatory and provocative, the reporters just mindless vultures, not people doing their jobs. The NTSB investigating board? Same situation. At turns it feels as if a conspiracy might reveal that they were totally out to get him, and not just conducting the investigation required of them under a whole lot of scrutiny.
Still, even for these shortcomings, Sully is well-rendered, particularly for a story that could easily have lost its way in the process of blowing it out to feature length. Come for Tom Hanks, stay for Tom Hanks.