Clint Eastwood is responsible for directing a handful of my all-time favorite pictures. I consider Unforgiven one of the finest westerns, not just in recent years but of all-time, rivaling even the greatest John Ford films. Million Dollar Baby is also a plenty powerful picture, as is Eastwood's fun and scary directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. Then you have The Bridges of Madison County, my favorite film of 1995, with my all-time favorite Meryl Streep performance - it's a truly exquisite, heartbreaking picture, directed with a beautifully gentle touch.
At the same time, Eastwood has delivered his fair share of duds too, from the clumsy and inert Bronco Billy and The Rookie, to overbaked Oscar bait like Changeling, Hereafter and J. Edgar.
Sully, Eastwood's latest effort - and let it be known first that I still consider the filmmaker a total badass, regardless of my coming comments - falls somewhere in the middle of not only the director's filmography but also leading man Tom Hanks'. It's a workmanlike, not terribly remarkable picture that, no pun intended, never quite takes off.
While Eastwood's film is not extraordinary, the events of January 15, 2009 most certainly were - that of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's successful emergency landing in the Hudson River after a pesky flock of geese flew into and destroyed both engines on U.S. Airways Flight 1549. All 155 passengers and crew, including First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, doing his best work since Rabbit Hole), survived the ordeal and Sully was quickly thrust into the national spotlight as a beloved hero.
Despite this showering of praise, Sullenberger was challenged in the days following the event by the National Transportation Safety Board, whose members floated the possibility that Sullenberger may in fact have had sufficient power to land the plane at an airport. Much of the picture focuses on the pilot's efforts to prove otherwise, all the while trying to cope with this overwhelming overnight fame.
It's easy to see why Eastwood was attracted to this awe-inspiring story - and why not cast the indomitable Hanks as Sullenberger - but the film never packs a real punch. The event itself is well-choreographed and convincing but the picture is edited in a way that somewhat undercuts much of the tension - just as you're about to get on the edge of your seat, Eastwood cuts away from the action, and beyond the event and the film's finale (involving different simulations of the landing), the proceedings here often border on the lethargic. Flashback scenes touching on Sullenberger's pilot training seem to be out of an entirely different picture altogether.
Hanks is so understated as Sullenberger that he nearly fades into the background. It's commendable work but hardly among his finest. Eckhart breathes more life into the film and has better dialogue to boot (the writing here tends to recall a middle-of-the-road TV movie). But it's just sad to see heavyweights like Laura Linney (as Sullenberger's wife) and Anna Gunn (as one of the NTSB staffers) saddled with such thankless material.
Moviegoers love their Eastwood and Hanks, so this'll probably rake in upwards of $100M, but Sully is nowhere near the most interesting work either man has done.