For a while I thought Harrison Ford should run for U.S. president, but now I’m convinced Tom Hanks is the one, with Clint Eastwood as secretary of state. The two have teamed up for “Sully” (Eastwood directing and Hanks as the titular character), the true-to-life story of an airplane accident that happened in January 2009.
For this, Hanks appears with white hair and perhaps a few kilograms heavier than when we saw him last in “Bridge of Spies.” He exudes trustworthy reliability from every pore. Though physically he bears only a slight resemblance to the real “Sully,” the former pilot Chesley Sullenberger, whose book (“The Highest Duty”) inspired this movie, Hanks looks every inch the type of man to make the best possible decision in the worst situations. In this case, it’s a flight that went awry immediately after take-off, whereupon he saves the lives of his passengers by gliding the aircraft into the Hudson River instead of turning back to La Guardia airport.
“Sully” recalls 2012’s fictional drama “Flight,” which is like the dark, nightmare version of Sullenberger’s incident. “Flight” featured Denzel Washington as a commuter airline pilot whose plane malfunctions right after take-off. He miraculously crash-lands the plane and almost all the passengers make it out alive. Later, however, a blood test reveals that he was flying while under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. Overnight the hero falls from grace, and viewers watch his demise as his conduct is investigated.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||96 mins|
Sullenberger, both in real life and as portrayed by Hanks, is a wholly different man. A former U.S. Air Force pilot and captain who’s devoted to his current job, Sully is as unblemished as a mirror in a posh hotel lobby. Character flaws that proved to be the undoing of the pilot in “Flight” — lust, cover-ups, addiction and drunkenness — are alien to Sully. As a matter of course, he also has an excellent relationship with his wife of many years (Laura Linney). It’s too bad that she only interacts with Sully over the phone and has precious little screen time.
In fact, it feels like everyone in the movie is bunched in a corner so Eastwood can give his full attention to and offer many extreme close-ups of Hanks alone. As the indomitable centerpiece, he is rarely out of frame, and Eastwood seems just as fascinated by Sully’s post-crash nightmares and flashbacks as he is by the pilot’s professionalism and sheer dedication to duty. Hanks is in his element here as the ace US Airways captain.
Sully has a flawless flying record, and after 40 years on the job he’s not about to make mistakes now. When a flock of geese fly into the plane and get sucked into the engines on a frigid January afternoon, Sully stays calm, with only a few beads of sweat betraying his anxiety. He exhorts his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) to remain composed, too, when they realize returning to a runway is impossible and he opts to guide the plane onto the Hudson River.
So many things could have gone wrong during those few minutes but they didn’t, and by the time the 155 passengers and crew members were rescued — as they stood on the wings of the airplane, suspended just centimeters above the freezing waters — Sully had become a national hero. He is reluctant to stand in the spotlight, however, and is even shown to have inklings of self-doubt when the National Transportation Safety Board probes his case from every angle, declaring skepticism about his decision to ditch the aircraft.
Eastwood is masterful here, working Sully’s story into a lean 90-plus minutes. Like Sully’s fateful flight, the story is intensely focused and concentrated — nothing is missing or left dangling. This is not blockbuster material but it’s a delight to spend time in the company of Eastwood and Hanks. Just like the real Chesley Sullenburger, these are two men whose highest priority has always been to get a job well done.