Back in 2012, Denzel Washington starred in Flight, Sully’s spiritual predecessor. They are basically the same movie – an airline pilot saves everyone on board a failed airplane, then that pilot faces investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Sully is the movie Flight wanted to be, even to the point of coming out just three years after Captain Sullenberger successfully landed an airplane on a river. The difference is that Sully is a very good movie and Flight is, at best, meh.
The biggest thing that makes Sully a much better movie than Flight is that you care about Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks). Denzel’s pilot is a drunk cocaine user, including when he is piloting aircraft. Sullenberger is our kindly, straight-laced grandfather. So, when the NTSB investigators start digging into Sully’s actions, there is never a moment where we are actively rooting for the investigators. The movie even helps us out by sharing Sully’s nightmares of crashing airplanes to induce more sympathy. Incidentally, Sully’s nightmares are the other reason you folks with a fear of flying should not watch this movie. You definitely do not want to see a jetliner trying to thread through skyscrapers.
He's calm now, but he doesn't know about the upcoming nightmares.
The other thing that makes this movie great is the pacing. It’s short (just 96 minutes), so it doesn’t waste time focusing on things of little importance, and it does a good job of building up the suspense. No, not the suspense of if he saves everybody (you smartass), but how the investigation turns out. As in Flight, the point of the NTSB investigation is to determine fault and the investigation skews heavily toward pilot error. So, much of Sully is spent in meeting rooms where the investigators (Anna Gunn, Mike O’Malley, and Jamey Sheridan) keep telling Sully and first officer Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) that they could have landed safely on a runway at one of two nearby airports and Sully and Skiles insisting the investigators and computers (algorithms and simulations) are wrong.
The film (directed by Clint Eastwood) also does a good job of switching between the investigation and the crash over its duration. The constant transitions keep the movie from becoming monotonous, which is exactly what turned Flight into a slog (not to mention Flight’s overly long 139-minute run time). Eastwood also sprinkles in the nightmares and some short scenes with Sully’s wife (Laura Linney) to complete the humanization of Sully. This is an absolute must because if you don’t know anything about Sully beyond his water landing, you come into this movie imagining him as an impervious hero. In order for the film to work at a dramatic level, Sully has to come off as a regular human and one that might have made a mistake. Serious kudos should go to Eastwood because, after watching him lecture an empty chair four years ago, I never would have thought he’d still be capable of putting together a coherent movie, much less a great movie with exceptional drama.
Clint's still got it.
After watching the film, there was one question it raised that I was very curious about – have there been other successful forced water landings by similar aircraft? I’ve personally logged around a quarter of million air miles (as a passenger, not a pilot) and not once have I ever believed I would actually utilize my seat cushion as a floatation device. The good news is that there have indeed been successful forced water landings besides Sully’s. The bad news is you can count them on one hand. I know that doesn’t help your flight anxiety, so I’ll just go back to sleep. Wake me when we land.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back unless you paid for the in-flight snack. What a ripoff.