It begins with a dream – a nightmare, actually. Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), or Sully, as he will forever be affectionately referred to until the end of time, is flying U.S. Airways Flight 1549 with First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) en route to Charlotte, North Carolina. As an audience member, you think they’re opening with a brief summary of the events of the Miracle on the Hudson. Instead, Sully takes a different route, maneuvering the plane through the Manhattan skyline before it collides with a building in a fiery explosion. Upon impact, Sully awakens, desperately gasping for breath, and the title card appears.
Such is the opening for Clint Eastwood’s Sully, appropriately opening the floodgates for the seasonal prestige drama to come later in the picture and from other movies in the coming months. Comparatively speaking, with a smaller wide release, The Light Between Oceans was merely a dress rehearsal for what’s to come. With Eastwood at the helm and Hanks in the title role, Sully is the more formal beginning. A lot of expectation is placed upon most films released these next few months by studios and audiences alike, and as expected, some don’t quite weigh up to fervent imaginations.
Some of the most effective opening scenes in film set the tone for what will follow later in the picture. With a strong focus on Sully’s psyche throughout, Eastwood appropriately lets his audience in on his intent, but what of his direction? Clocking in at 96 minutes, Sully is certainly shorter than someone might expect from a biopic, or even a supposed Oscar contender – in fact, between the eight films nominated for Best Picture last Oscars, the average runtime was a hair above 130 minutes. Add to that a steady pace that relentlessly chugs through, and you have two aspects exacerbating an unfortunate key issue that holds the movie back.
Half of the script is written in the present day, when Sully and Skiles are facing heavy scrutiny from the press and those evaluating the landing, while the other half is mostly a combination of nightmarish visions and representations of the events leading up to, during and after the landing. With the film being set in the present, the past is referenced as personal flashbacks whenever Sully encounters some sort of media or opinion of what happened. But rather than being somewhat structurally unconventional, the narrative is rather disjointed and lacking in focus, even while it’s in the present, taking away from a spot-on, consistent tone and some well-scripted scenes.
And yet, part of me was drawn to this idea: what if that disjointedness was intentional? What if screenwriter Todd Komarnicki had written it as such that these characteristics would be an artful, if admittedly subtle interpretation of Sully’s frantically frazzled psyche during these times of intense pressure? But, before I can entirely agree with that prospect, I am reminded of how safely, surprisingly so, that Eastwood approached the material. It already seemed the script was written as though there was only so much material to go on (the screenplay was based upon Sullenberger’s memoir “Highest Duty”), but as far as almost all aesthetics are concerned, there was nothing to write home about.
It seemed as though Eastwood was content with letting the film ride high on its star power and their ability to carry scenes of tension, and to be fair, almost all of the performances are solid enough to briefly distract from any glaring issues. Throughout the film, though particularly in the few genuine moments of tension Eastwood is able to wrangle out of the screenplay, Eastwood gets his performers to step up, with Hanks being the obvious standout. Hanks will surely be in the running for an Oscar, and numerous media outlets have been beating that drum for weeks, though don’t be surprised if he isn’t the one carrying away that golden statue.
And so now the Oscar race is officially underway, with Sully being one of the first names into the ring. But between Toronto, Telluride and Venice, it won’t be alone for very long. It won’t be much longer until we all see those ‘For Your Oscar Consideration’ advertisements plastered on any random website you visit, and you might as well start preparing yourself to see as many candidates as possible. You’ll need something to blow off steam with every weekend during this toxic political climate, anyway. Besides, you’ll be preparing yourselves for potentially awkward dinner party conversations six months in advance. You’re welcome.