Expect this movie about Captain Sullenberger's terrifying emergency landing to be saluted with Oscar nominations.

By Tom Gliatto
Updated October 05, 2016 06:19 PM
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Credit: Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros

A movie directed by Clint Eastwood is like a project your father might have worked on in the tool shed or in the garage over many weekends and nights. It has the virtues of solid construction, good materials, an appreciation for the workmanship inherent in simple nuts and bolts, a lack of fuss and varnish, and overall functionality. Who’s to say that Dad, given time, patience and a big enough budget, couldn’t produce a flying machine?

These things all serve Eastwood admirably when he tackles the theme of stoic heroism, from the underrated Gran Torino to American Sniper, the highest-grossing war movie of all time, and now the excellent Sully, starring Tom Hanks as pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River without the loss of a single life on Jan. 15, 2009.

RELATED VIDEO: Hero Pilot Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger Remembers the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ in His Own Words

With a screenplay by Todd Komanarcki, Sully isn’t much longer than 90 minutes, but it’s an unexpectedly, powerfully dense narrative: We experience the landing (and, boy, do we ever) as intense flashbacks within a calmer but troubling frame: Sully is appearing before the National Transportation Safety Board as it investigates whether the plane, which failed after being socked by a flock of birds not long after takeoff, in fact had enough engine power to reach a runway either in New York or New Jersey.

Hanks, as unfussy an actor as Eastwood is a director, portrays Sully as a man who knows he did the right thing but can’t suppress flickers of doubt and fear in his eyes. (In those moments, we nonheroes identify with him.) He senses a tugging below his feet, and he can’t rule out that the rug isn’t going to be altogether yanked out from under him. Hanks’ Sully is an admirable companion piece to his Oscar-winning performance as the cargo captain besieged by pirates in Captain Phillips. Both are examples of grace under terrifying pressure, the sort that crushes coal into diamonds.

The scenes of the crash are carefully parceled out and filmed–bluntly–for maximum impact. Near the end, as we watch aviation re-enactors simulate the cockpit conditions under which Sully was operating, even these relatively humdrum moments have their own white-knuckle tension, as if a video game were about to break through to catastrophic reality.

The movie is a bit perfunctory in the way it introduces us, briefly, to some of the passengers. They’re pleasant, nondescript, slightly jarred by the hassle and bustle of boarding. It doesn’t seem altogether fair, really, to then throw them into the screaming ordeal of the emergency landing. On the other hand, Eastwood hasn’t cast distractingly familiar faces: Hanks would have had more of a challenge carrying the film if the emergency-exit seats had been occupied by John Goodman, say, and Rupert Everett.

But the movie’s basic integrity and skill reduce such objections to quibbles. No other director would keep cutting to Sully’s wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), hanging on the phone back home and waiting for the hero’s return, then not conclude the movie with a shot of the reunited couple hugging in the driveway or the foyer. Eastwood leaves Linney in the suburbs and Hanks in Manhattan. Do you feel the lack of a clincher? Nope.