On a cold January morning in 2009, when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger diverted US Airways Flight 1549 to the icy waters off of Manhattan after a collision with a flock of geese dismantled two engines, the landing — which saved all 155 people aboard — was called “The Miracle on the Hudson.” Director Clint Eastwood is less interested in miracles than in how human beings deal with calamity, unexpected relief, and the aftermath. That’s the driving force behind his quietly powerful “Sully,” another emotionally resonant hallmark in the octogenarian filmmaker’s storied career.
The movie’s focus, adeptly laid out by screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (working from Sullenberger’s memoir “Highest Duty”), is the question of whether Sully (Tom Hanks) unnecessarily risked the passengers’ lives by landing on water, or if he could have made it back to LaGuardia or to a landing strip at Teterboro, New Jersey. The captain himself worries as much, even while visions of crashes jar his waking and sleeping life, and random New Yorkers tell him he’s a hero.
But the National Transportation Safety Board’s panel of inquisitors thinks Sully had safer options, too, and their investigation — led by an effectively stern, skeptical trio played by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan — becomes the dramatic spine: while he awaits his fate in a city that adores him, Sully wonders if his career, after thousands of successful flights, is over.
Though there’s never any real question where the film stands on Sully’s feat and reputation, the air of nagging doubt in its main character, and how it clashes with his media star image, anchors it nicely. (Even Katie Couric shows up, playing herself as an unfriendly interviewer in one of Sully’s dreams.) It also allows for a tension-filled buildup to the depiction of the incident itself, presented in flashback but eschewing juiced terror or cheap portent.
Instead, Eastwood aims for something human-sized, an accumulation of believable detail that begins to seem extraordinary: passengers boarding an ordinary flight, muttering cockpit talk, then the commanding voices of flight attendants in crisis mode (“Heads down! Stay down!”) and eerily calm wide shots of a commercial jet flying where it normally wouldn’t. The rescue, meanwhile, a conflagration of ferryboats, first-responders and evacuees, is also handled with an unfussy directness that keeps it exciting, even moving, without ever seeming sensationalized. There’s never a sense of embellishment for drama’s sake.
As for the performances, actor/role matching has rarely been as ideally suited as Hanks is for Sullenberger. The two-time Best Actor winner has reached a point in his career where bringing his unforced, high-wattage connectivity to playing real people (“Captain Phillips,” “Bridge of Spies”) is paying more dividends than his fictional everyman roles. Here he brings a simmering disquiet and almost Eastwood-ian compression to Sully that colors this veteran of the air as much as his easygoing authority and kindness.
It’s a portrait of a man defined by being good at his job, not looking to play hero, and it comes through whether enduring tough questions from the NTSB, or — during the landing sequence, in the moments after reaching the dock — fending off a hungry media glare until he knows every passenger is accounted for and safe. He’s aided by Aaron Eckhart doing his best work in years as Sully’s wisecracking, righteously supportive co-pilot Jeff Skiles, and Laura Linney, who takes the thankless phone-wife role and squeezes in enough contours to suggest a solid marriage under emotional and financial duress.
On a technical level, there’s a bracing crispness to frequent Eastwood collaborator Tom Stern’s winter-in-New York cinematography, and Eastwood’s use of IMAX cameras for nearly all of the filming reveals a hidden muscle. Not only does the large format provide the expected visceral oomph to the flight scenes and skyline vistas, but it also imbues even simple, understated images — a darkened close-up of Sully’s worried face, his nighttime jogs through Manhattan to release tension — with a magnified intensity commensurate to the feelings in play. “Sully” in IMAX offers welcome proof that, in the careful hands of a real director, outsized doesn’t have to mean overwrought.
And while the visual effects are first rate — Eastwood’s always been a pro at using CGI as a means rather than as the end — there’s a lively, hard-to-ignore subtext here, wherein an 86-year-old classicist filmmaker tells the story of an experienced captain, still alive because of his confident human instincts, under threat by an industry’s over-reliance on computer simulation. “Sully,” an honest, skillful rumination on what makes a hero, is just one more example of how Eastwood, having directed movies only slightly longer than his protagonist had been flying planes, is still a masterful pilot himself.