Clint Eastwood gained fame in westerns as The Man With No Name, and has recently forged a directorial niche in movies featuring Men of Few Words. So he follows the hugely popular “American Sniper” with another film featuring a character graced with quiet nobility, “Sully,” a spare and old-fashioned celebration of heroism.
Featuring Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who executed the remarkable 2009 water landing that became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson,” Eastwood has delivered a no-frills affair, almost to a fault. A brisk 96 minutes, the movie is workmanlike in its approach, yet still manages to be stirring thanks to the subject matter.
Sully describes himself as “just a man who was doing his job,” and therein lies the story’s central appeal.
Largely eschewing biographical details, this take on Sullenberger (which writer Todd Komarnicki adapted from Sullenberger’s own book) plays like an ode to competence and commitment. It’s also filtered through the prism of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation seemingly determined to second-guess Sullenberger’s decision, which saved 155 lives.
To that extent, the NTSB — or rather, the bureaucrats charged with examining the case — are cast as the villain, followed closely by the intrusive media, swarming around Sully’s hotel and his home.
Laconic fellow that he is, Sully isn’t particularly enthusiastic about all the attention and publicity, while experiencing Technicolor nightmares both about what transpired and what might have, with the NTSB fueling his doubts.
Eastwood gets roughly a third of the way into the film before reenacting the flight, and even knowing the outcome, there’s suspense — and eventually, elation — in its details. That includes the rescue effort and Sullenberger’s determination to ensure that everyone aboard the plane is accounted for.
Hanks (again playing a real-life captain, after “Captain Phillips”) brings grit and vulnerability to his portrayal, in a way few current actors could. His inherent integrity proves a major asset, since Sullenberger’s buttoned-up persona and the script provide so little in the way of demonstrative moments.
Otherwise, except for Aaron Eckhart as copilot Jeff Skiles, almost nobody registers, despite a lot of good actors in smallish roles. That’s especially true of Laura Linney’s thankless part as Sullenberger’s wife, whose only exchanges with him are inexplicably conducted via rushed cell phone calls. On that score, the movie’s chilliness roughly parallels the Hudson’s temperature that fateful January day.
“Sully” nevertheless feels well timed, exalting simple virtues amid an election season that has evoked so much cynicism. From that perspective, Eastwood — a model of filmmaking efficiency at age 86 — emulates “Sully’s” principal values, delivering a movie that’s just uplifting enough, finally, to get the job done.
“Sully” opens in the U.S. on Sept. 9. It’s rated PG-13.