Story falls right into Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood’s wheelhouse

Sully

‘Sully’

Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Rated: PG-13

 

There is no forgetting the images of Jan. 15, 2009. That was the day U.S. Airways flight 1549 touched down in the Hudson River. All on board made it off safely, some into life rafts as more passengers huddled on the wings waiting for first responders, perched there like magpies on a power line.

And just when you think you knew everything about that day — the Canadian geese flying into the jet engines rendering them both inoperable, an inconceivable occurrence in itself, and the miraculous landing orchestrated by the pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — along comes a movie that reveals some things you might not know.

This is a solid piece of filmmaking that fits director Clint Eastwood’s no-fuss style. In itself, it’s a compelling, tense true story told with brilliant economy, with the script from Todd Komarnicki (plus Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) using just a few flashbacks to illustrate Sullenberger’s devotion — dating back to his childhood — for all things aviation, a subtle backstory that takes this beyond a mere docu-drama.

With over 40 years as a commercial airline pilot, it’s clear that Sullenberger’s experience, expertise with this particular airliner, and his instinct saved 155 lives, and not for a minute do you see Tom Hanks as anything but this man who’s universally called a hero. It’s the kind of role that suits Hanks best — just an everyman doing his job until fate intervenes.

Much like “Captain Phillips,” where Hanks played the title role of a ship captain taken hostage by modern-day pirates in order to save his crew, Sully is just experiencing an average day at work until mere seconds into the flight when a flock of birds is sucked into the jet’s engines. The movie takes its time getting to the next terrifying two minutes of a powerless jet, with limited options, slowly losing altitude as Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart) calmly work the problem as the realize they do not have enough power to make it back to LaGuardia, or even nearby Teterboro in New Jersey.

This is what we know. What we didn’t was the incredibly tough time the National Transportation Safety Board gave both pilots for their decision to ditch a commercial jet in the river instead of trying to return to the airport — something numerous simulations using onboard data showed could have been done.

In one of the movie’s best scenes, Sully and Skiles confront two of the investigators (played by Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn) who have been the most critical of actions aboard the flight that led to the water landing. It’s a methodical take down of an evaluation system that does not allow for the human element.

Sometimes Eastwood’s straightforward approach is not a good fit with the material he chooses, but with “Sully,” his subtle direction soars to a height that does justice to this incredible event. Throughout, as he has done in the past, the quiet, piano-driven score he composed for the movie plays under key scenes. Eastwood’s penchant for scoring his own movies has made his music as recognizable as his directing style.

In this, both are key elements as is Hanks’ performance. Over the end credits, the real Sully and many of the passengers on board that flight visit in an airplane hangar. Their adoration fully palpable for the pilot and his graciousness and humble nature evident. But we already knew he was like this because Hanks’ captured him perfectly as “Sully.”

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