A skilled director can make a tense story come to life onscreen. But an unusually good director can make us feel anxious while watching a story we expected to have no drama at all, and Clint Eastwood does that in the low-key, beautifully assembled “Sully.”
U.S. Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger, now known to the country as Sully, was flying an Airbus from LaGuardia to Charlotte in January 2009. A flock of geese blasted toward the plane, disabling two engines, and he landed on the Hudson River, getting all 155 people aboard home alive.
Warner Bros. bills this biopic as “The untold story behind the Miracle on the Hudson,” but they use the wrong preposition. It’s the untold story after the event, when the National Transportation Safety Board questioned Sullenberger’s judgment and threatened to retire him without a pension if the crash could have been averted.
Or so it goes in Todd Komarnicki’s script. He adapted “Highest Duty,” the book Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow wrote after the crash, so he takes an unadulteratedly favorable view of the protagonist. Though Sully second-guesses his decision once in a while and has bad dreams, someone – a bartender, his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart), even his wife (Laura Linney) – is always on hand to remind him he’s a hero.
This may sound corny, yet it’s not. Eastwood tells the story cleverly and efficiently; he weaves in and out of the trial, changing points of view constantly. He first gives us the crash from the air traffic controllers’ side and then, much later, from the cockpit.
Hanks maintains a calm demeanor that conceals a racing pulse and troubled mind. We have seen him do this cool-under-fire thing many times, from “Saving Private Ryan” to “Captain Phillips,” yet he varies these characters subtly. (Folks with long memories will recall that he played another Sully 14 years ago: The hit man in “Road to Perdition.”)
Eastwood promoted his longtime assistant editor, Blu Murray, to editor, and Murray cut crash sequences that make you wonder how the film crew pulled them off. Cinematographer Tom Stern, who has shot Eastwood’s last 13 features, knows what the boss wants: A subtle color palette that distinguishes between the institutional glare of examination rooms and the pale skies of a January day over New York.
Despite its brief running time, the film feels stretched out once or twice, especially when Sully phones his wife. We never see them together; she’s there to remind us what’s at stake if the NTSB finds him culpable, and the character becomes disposable.
On the other hand, the coda that shows the real Chesley and Lorraine Sullenberger visiting the Carolinas Aviation Museum belongs in the picture. It shows us both how closely Hanks impersonated him in looks and demeanor and reminds us what an ordinary guy Sully was, except for that extraordinary four minutes of cool-headed valor.
Charlotteans may recognize actor Rob Trevelier as a control tower supervisor, and I heard audience members chuckle when the copilot offers to take Sully to dinner at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House on Piedmont Row.
The real Charlotte-bound passengers show up in the reunion at the Aviation Museum, and almost all have Southern accents – though nobody on the fictional plane does. Maybe the Californians making this picture didn’t notice.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Length: 93 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (some peril and brief strong language).