There is a moment in this film where Captain Chesley Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks, is testifying in the NTSB public hearing about the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” that reminded me of the film that won Hanks his first Academy Award, that of Philadelphia (1993). It’s not just on a superficial level, given that the NTSB hearing looks like a court room. In terms of Hanks’ performance, there were echoes here of his character in Philadelphia, that of calm, controlled, easygoing righteousness. I suppose this film presents a slight bit of doubt that his first Oscar-winning character ultimately lacked at least in his court-room scenes, but still I thought it was Hanks giving a similar kind of performance.
Given the presence of court room or court-room-like scenes, some might draw comparisons to Hanks’ most recent role, Bridge of Spies (2015), a movie that put Hanks into the shoes of an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, as we watch him get out a tricky scenario, using his ingenuity. That fourth outing with director Steven Spielberg features a similar performance here of understated charm and contemplation, having mainly to read his face.
Hanks is of course fantastic and a veteran actor who can nail charm and serious contemplation like nobody’s business. What I’ll say though is that this biopic doesn’t do what a lot do and that’s tell a cradle to present story. The common criticism is that biopics tell too much or try to tell a person’s entire life. Recent biopics have done a better job of narrowing their focus. This movie has perhaps gone too far in making itself too narrow.
Writer Todd Komarnicki simply didn’t have enough material, which suggests the book he adapted was thin, or else Komarnicki was lazy or rushed. My assumption is the latter. Yet, I could be wrong having not read the book, Highest Duty, the memoir by Sullenberger, but even if it was, Komarnicki could have fleshed out some things or even invented some things as was the case with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Simply put, this film doesn’t have enough drama. There isn’t really any conflict. It doesn’t help that the incident in question only lasted six minutes.
This isn’t the first time Hanks has played the real-life commander of a real-life vessel that runs into danger. This movie, however, doesn’t come close to Apollo 13 (1995) or Captain Phillips (2013). The incidents in question in those movies lasted days not minutes, so there was more to mine in those movies. This movie essentially replays those six minutes over and over without much more to add. Other than those six minutes, the rest of the movie feels like padding.
It’s not as if a movie can’t have a brief incident as a centerpiece and build around it dramatically and with a forceful narrative. Robert Zemeckis already made the better version of this film with Denzel Washington in Flight (2012). Zemeckis had one brief plane sequence, but he didn’t have to replay that sequence over and over because there was so much more drama and conflict to explore. Here, there’s nothing.
Obviously, Komarnicki’s script wants the drama and conflict to be mainly with the aversion for Sullenberger to be labeled a hero or receive so much media attention as well as the NTSB investigation into US Airways Flight 1549. The NTSB probe itself seems to be what’s really at odds.
Director Clint Eastwood hires two really great actors to represent the NTSB. The first is Mike O’Malley (Yes, Dear and Glee) and the other is Anna Gunn (Deadwood and Breaking Bad). With them, one would hope the process would be analyzed and exposed because the sticking point appears to be a rush to judgment without looking at all the facts, data and variables. If this is to condemn the NTSB and their process of investigation, how the NTSB does what it does, with this case being so unique, then I don’t think this movie gives the NTSB its just due.
It just seemed like the character played by O’Malley and Gunn were so single-minded and were two people who had never flown a plane before. They also seemed like two people who didn’t look at all the facts or give the case any deep thought. It’s why something like Philadelphia is such a great drama because even though you don’t agree with the other side, the other side of the argument isn’t made to seem incompetent.
There were nice cameos from actors whom one wishes were more used like Michael Rapaport, Jerry Ferrara and Max Adler. Laura Linney isn’t a cameo, but her role could have been more. Kathleen Quinlan who played Hanks’ wife in Apollo 13 was better used than Linney here. Aaron Eckhart is probably the only real effective, supporting actor. That’s of course by design, but, as others have pointed out, he gets probably the best final line to a movie that has come along in a while.
Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.