The 2009 "Miracle on the Hudson" that saw pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger land his US Airways commuter plane on the Hudson river with no fatalities after both of his engines failed is one of those stories where, as soon as it happened, you braced yourself for the inevitable movie version. Worst case scenario was that it would end up on Lifetime or one of the networks for some kind of schlocky movie-of-the-week. By contrast, director Clint Eastwood's Sully, starring Tom Hanks in the title role of the hero pilot, is probably the best case version of how we should see this story on film.
Unlike Robert Zemeckis' gin-soaked, drug-addled Flight from a few years ago, which tackled a similar story but amped up the flaws of its lead character, Sully takes a nonlinear approach to the events up to and after the famed crash (or rather, "water landing," as the characters take pains to point out). This in turn allows for one of the more complex and layered performances from its star, depicting the pilot not only dealing with the sudden onrush of fame and adulation by New Yorkers in desperate need of a hero, but also his own lingering self-doubts as to whether he made the right call following the engines' failure.
To that point, and I've said this before elsewhere, it almost feels like the judgment of history is complete if Tom Hanks is cast to play you in a movie about your life. Once that happens, whether warranted or not, you're the immediate beneficiary of all of Hanks' decades of accumulated goodwill as one of America's most beloved stars. Of course, to some extent this ended up working against 2013's Captain Phillips (one of my favorites of that year), where Hanks' heroic portrayal of the titular captain, held hostage by Somali pirates, was at odds with the recollections of some his own crewmembers.
However, in the case of Sully it really does feel like the connection between the actor and the real life person he's playing couldn't be more apt. Captain Sullenberger really does seem as basically decent and down-to-Earth as we'd like him to be (and as Hanks is perceived). This is a far cry from Eastwood's previous "based on real life" film, American Sniper, which twisted itself into an ideological pretzel to emerge with as hagiographic a portrait as possible of its lead character (a portrait whose veracity is increasingly in question the further away we get, and the more facts emerge).
In Sully, the central drama arises not from the actual crash (which is depicted multiple times from multiple perspectives, and is gripping each time), but rather from the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into whether Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhardt) followed the correct procedures in deciding to land on the water. While this part of the story is certainly compelling, and arguably necessary for a movie like this, it does feel a bit manufactured, with the NTSB investigators, in defiance of common sense, acting at times like they wandered in from the Spanish Inquisition.
(Actor Mike O'Malley takes the prize, by the way, for "Douchiest Bureaucrat Since William Atherton in Ghostbusters.)
That the investigation will be resolved in Sully's favor is never really in doubt, so to some extent it's just a waiting game as we watch the various players go through their paces. And while the film's final line and conclusion are so abrupt that it feels like something out of a sitcom, the workmanlike script by Todd Komarnicki knows where to find drama in its situations, and Eastwood's methodical direction does what's required. At 96 minutes, the movie sticks around exactly as long as it needs to. More than anything else, Sully is yet another showpiece performance by its star, Tom Hanks, and it's worth watching just for that. B+
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