For most of its 96 minute running time, Sully is a nicely acted, no-frills bio movie and a slice of entirely justified hero worship. The film is, of course, the big-screen take on that astounding “Miracle on the Hudson” photo of January 15, 2009, caught when some of the 155 survivors of the water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 were on the wings and life rafts of the airliner sinking into freezing water.
Tom Hanks plays the miracle-worker pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and he’s got his man down, to the white hair and matching mustache and the air of honesty, humility and competence that we associate with “the Greatest Generation." Sully has been adapted for the big screen by Todd Komarnicki from Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow’s book Highest Duty and the Clint Eastwood-directed film version rests squarely on Hanks’ portrayal of the cool-headed kind of guy you’d want in the cockpit if the chips were down.
The screenplay has a zigzag, time-tripping structure that, assuredly directed by Eastwood, wisely doesn’t lead with the North Carolina-bound aircraft making its emergency landing. Instead, it spends a solid hour in the aftermath, a kind of courtroom-and-psychological melodrama when Sullenberger was plagued by recurring nightmares and wracked by indecision about whether or not he could have done anything different during the crisis—or avoided it altogether. Meanwhile, investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board hammer the veteran of 42 years with the same suspicions and doubts.
His various supportive coworkers, co-pilot (nicely played by Aaron Eckhart, who handles the humor like an ace) and wife (Laura Linney, doing her best with an underwritten, almost unsympathetic role) are depicted as incredulous that Sullenberger should be second-guessed. The film itself is unquestioning, judging Sullenberger as exemplary and blameless from the first frame to last, a bit like the approach Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall took with American Sniper central figure Chris Kyle. But Sully takes pains to point out that Sullenberger wasn’t the only hero that day. Professionalism, dedication and selflessness marked the efforts of the entire team involved, passengers included.
Even though we all know the eventual outcome, Eastwood’s several depictions of the cataclysmic plane nosedive, presented from various perspectives, including those of random strangers, are white-knuckle stuff. Eastwood can take a bow for rare, smart use of CGI—especially when the plane careens straight for the NYC skyline and most especially when the film is experienced in IMAX. Evoking memories of 9/11, these images are eerie and deeply unsettling.
Sully may not be a deeply probing, multilayered piece of work. Without Hanks and Eastwood, the same material might have served as the basis of a very good television movie. But it has been handled with finesse, and it powerfully affirms grace under pressure and esprit de corps; even more, it celebrates good people doing good deeds. Sully won’t just please crowds and evoke tears but, in an angry, ugly time in our national history, it should also resonate deeply with many.