It’s easy to get the wrong idea about Sully, with Tom Hanks starring as Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, the hero pilot who ditched his disabled plane on the icy waters of the Hudson River on January 15th, 2009, and saved the lives of all 150 passengers and five crew members aboard. If you’re thinking award-chasing, biopic crapola, don’t. Here’s the thing: Clint Eastwood doesn’t usually direct that kind of shit. (Did you see American Sniper?) And Hanks is too blisteringly true and adventurous an actor to play Sully as a one-dimensional headline. The movie earns your attention and respect by digging deep, by finding the fear and self-doubt inside a man who’d never accept being defined as a hero. It’s an eye-opener.
Here’s the public record: About three minutes after US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport multiple bird strikes by Canadian geese caused both jet engines to fail. Sully turned to co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (the excellent Aaron Eckhart) to consider options. Could they return to LaGuardia or the nearby Teterboro airport in New Jersey without crashing? With 208 seconds to decide, Sully said, “We’re going in the Hudson.” The Captain picked a spot near midtown where choppers, police, fireman and ferryboat rescue units could move in quickly. They did, in 24 minutes.
Eastwood, using IMAX cameras (kudos to cinematographer Tom Stern), pins you to your seat with high-tension scenes of flight and rescue. But could those sequences, no matter how riveting, sustain an entire film? Doubtful. That’s why Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki focus so hard on the aftermath of the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson.” In public, Sully is besieged by the media, politicians and adoring fans. Privately, he’s haunted by unnerving visions of the tragedies that could have occurred if he had failed to find a safe place to land. On the phone with his wife Lorrie (Laura Linney), the pilot is assured he made the right decision. But his actions, based on 40 years of know-how, are questioned by the National Transportation Safety Board, who grill Sully and his co-pilot relentlessly. Full disclosure: The NTSB hearings did not take place right after the rescue, but18 months later. Why the rejiggering? It goes to the heart of the film’s (and Eastwood’s) sympathy for the value of experience and intuition over computer guesswork in a time not so long ago before humanity went digital.
Sully is clearly a personal film for Eastwood and Hanks, both at the top of their game. This is a great performance, nuanced and perfectly attuned to the qualities of a modest man of immodest skill. Hanks has won two Oscars as Best Actor for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, and has nominations for Big, Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away. Shocking fact: that last nod was 15 years ago. WTF! Are Academy voters taking Hanks for granted? Did they see Road to Perdition, Captain Phillips and Bridge of Spies? Like the film;s subject Hanks makes the impossible seem effortless. There are few flashbacks to establish Sully and no pleas for special treatment. Yet Hanks — a master of subtle brilliance — lets us see all we need to know about what defines his character, creating a portrait of a man in full. It’s acting of the highest order. Here’s a movie that deserves the three words Sully prizes most: Job well done.