How do you criticize a film directed by an 86 year-old man? Most people are lucky to be walking and feeding themselves at that point, let alone wrangling multiple aspects of a big-screen production with a $60M budget. Yet Sully (2016) is one of several recent late-career efforts for the prolific actor-turned-director, who has helmed no less than 35 films since 1971...and though it's not quite exceptional from any angle, it's certainly a capable and entertaining adaptation of screen-ready source material.
Written by Todd Komarnicki and based on Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by esteemed pilot Chesley Sullenberger and the late Jeffrey Zaslow, Sully chronicles the fallout from 2009's "Miracle on the Hudson", in which the pilot famously water-landed US Airways Flight 1549 and kept all 155 passengers and crew alive. Most anyone following the news that year can recount the basic details of that mid-January event: the plane's loss of both engines from a bird strike shortly after takeoff, the quick response time of Sullenberger and first officer Jeffrey Skiles, the dramatic Hudson River landing, and, of course, their immediate rescue by local responders including the American Red Cross, a ferryboat captain, and even a few NYC police scuba divers.
While we do get more than a few different variations of the event during Sully---some "real", some imagined due to post-traumatic stress, and some simulated at the request of the National Transportation Safety Board---much of its brisk 96-minute running time is devoted to the post-landing investigation. This gives the film a fragmented sense of momentum at times: it's jarring and somber at first, peaks towards the middle, and falls back into "courtroom drama" mode in the home stretch. The film-ending simulations---in which Sully (Tom Hanks) and first officer Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are nearly railroaded by the NTSB, who insists they could've easily reached two nearby airports---almost manage to deflate everything that comes before them, as the stakes are considerably lower and we're essentially watching a controlled program via satellite uplink. Did we really need to see it four times?
In fact, those are my biggest gripes with Sully: it's definitely a little short on material, and the NTSB's portrayal gives the film a villain it doesn't really need. The latter feels like a direct result of the former, whereas a more well-rounded examination of Sully's re-entry into life may have yielded better results. Brief phone calls to his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney, in a completely thankless role) give the film a faint whiff of personal drama, but never really amount to much. Instead, the NTSB is presented as an unexpected threat that goes away just as quickly, tucking its tail after Sully and Skiles remind the agency that, well, shit happens.
Luckily, the dramatization of Flight 1549's unlikely fate still manages to impress at least half the time thanks to both lead actors and an otherwise strong commitment to realism. Details of the short trip are rendered in great detail (and, in many cases, transcribed from the original TRACON audio), which gives Sully an authentic, well-researched atmosphere in the vein of earlier films like United 93. Also welcome are the appearances of early responders like ferry captain Vincent Lombardi and at least one of the police divers, who portrayed themselves. The performances of Hanks and Eckhart don't hurt, either: both share believable chemistry as heroes under pressure that succeed in the face of real and slightly manufactured odds. Overall, Sully is the kind of film that squeaks by on the strength of its source material and a few standout scenes: it's got a great center but never explores more than a few layers below the surface, leaving us with a watchable film that probably won't hold up to more than a few viewings.
Either way, Warner Bros.' Blu-ray combo pack of Sully gets credit for quick turnaround time, arriving just over three months after its theatrical debut---it's still showing at a few first-run theaters around here. Serving up a terrific A/V presentation that's only bested by the optional 4K UHD release, my only real complaint is a lack of more detailed extras. Luckily, the main bases are covered in modest detail, as we catch a glimpse of the film's six-month production and hear from several of the real-life participants too.
Not surprisingly, Warner Bros. has served up a terrific visual presentation that, with the right setup, rivals a theatrical experience (an optional 4K edition is available as well). It's also presented in a cropped 2.35:1 aspect ratio, despite being mostly shot on digital IMAX cameras and opened up to 1.90:1 during select scenes at large-format showings. Sully's mostly pale and desaturated color palette looks accurate for mid-January; black levels run deep, depth is noticeable, and textures are strong throughout. But this isn't a "showy" film overall: with some exceptions, fluorescent-lit interiors and dialogue exchanges are dominant. Digital imperfections---excessive noise reduction, edge enhancement, banding, compression artifacts, etc.---don't seem to be an issue at all. The sporadic CG effects also blend well with the practical shots, adding to the overall sense of realism by reminding us that less is more. So despite its modest ambitions (and questionable aspect ratio), this is a fine transfer that fans will appreciate.
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Likewise, the film's audio doesn't always show off from start to finish; Sully is overwhelmingly "dialogue over action", but picks up nicely during the right moments and delivers a convincing level of detail. This default Dolby Atmos track (which automatically unfolds to DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 if you're not set up for it) features a strong amount of low end and discrete channel effects when the situation demands them, with a good amount of dynamic range that's not too overwhelming. Other moments also shine, as sporadic music cues and more subtle background noises are well-placed and effective without screaming for attention. Simply put, Sully is one fine-sounding disc that doesn't necessarily have to swing for the fences. Optional Spanish, French, Portuguese, and English Descriptive Audio tracks are also included, as well as optional subtitles (in the same languages) during the film and extras.
The interface is presented in Warner's typical no-frills style, with a static background and well-organized menus for chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, and bonus features. This two-disc release (one Blu-ray, one DVD) is housed in a dual-hubbed eco case with an Ultraviolet Digital Copy redemption slip and a matching slipcover. The Blu-ray is unlocked for region-free playback.
Just three mid-length Featurettes that run 16-20 minutes apiece; these don't dig extremely deep, but they're entertaining enough and feature real-life pilot Chesley Sullenberger (his wife Lorrie, daughter Kelly, first officer Jeff Skiles, and air traffic controller Patrick Harten also appear, among others). "Moment by Moment: Adverting Disaster on the Hudson" is the most gripping of the featurettes, as actual participants in the landing recount several first-hand details with some original audio as well. "Sully Sullenberger: The Man Behind the Miracle" rewinds a bit, as the pilot speaks candidly about growing up in Texas and working towards his lifelong dream of a flying career. Finally, "Neck Deep in the Hudson: Shooting Sully" offers a more traditional behind-the-scenes account, featuring on-set and retrospective comments from Eastwood, Hanks, and other members of the cast and crew.
The lack of more substantial extras is disappointing but expected (Eastwood films typically go this route), and what's here at least tells Sully's story from different angles. As mentioned earlier, optional subtitles are included during all three featurettes.
Though uneven at times and not quite exceptional from any specific angle (I could say the same thing about most of Eastwood's late-career films), Sully is nonetheless a thoughtful and well-crafted production that translates a real-life event into accessible cinematic entertainment. But the film's chopped-up structure and multiple perspectives don't always feel necessary and it just barely squeaks out enough material to fill its 96-minute lifespan, which doesn't give it enough depth to survive more than a few repeat viewings. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart do a fine job carrying most of the weight; the supporting roles are adequate, but can't help trailing in direct comparison. Warner Bros' Blu-ray package mirrors my thoughts about Sully as a whole: it looks and sounds great, but the bonus material is a bit thin. Mildly Recommended for fans, but everyone else will be just as happy with a rental.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.