The sight of a passenger plane along the skyline of New York is an image that has been seared in the global collective consciousness. It’s a memory that “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s new film, acknowledges, but also attempts to redefine. What if a plane skimming skyscrapers could conjure an image not just of unimaginable terror, but one of incredible heroism and skill? That’s what “Sully” might accomplish, in committing to film the heartwarming story of “The Miracle on the Hudson,” when Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made a forced water landing on the Hudson River with 155 passengers aboard a U.S. Airways flight to Charlotte.
Eastwood is an efficient, restrained and methodical filmmaker, an approach that lends well to the temperament and character of Sully, as he is portrayed by Tom Hanks. What’s remarkable about the incident as we see it on screen, is just how calm everyone remains throughout the 208-second ordeal. Perhaps because they didn’t know just how amazing this feat would be, but also because everyone is just doing their jobs very, very well. From the air traffic controller to the ferry captains to Sully himself, along with his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and the flight attendants, every player is professional, motivated and exceedingly helpful.
Helpfulness is a simple concept, but a powerful one, and “Sully” captures the essence of what made the Miracle on the Hudson so grippingly inspiring. It’s a wonderful New York story, and Eastwood takes care to make it a story about the many different people who made it a miracle. That is the emotional core of the film, a celebration of the simple act of reaching out a helping hand without a second thought.
Eastwood populates the cast with a host of New York character actors, from recognizable faces such as Michael Rapaport and Holt McCallany and Mike O’Malley, along with other less recognizable but no less authentic faces. There’s a special kind of magic about a New York story in which the big city suddenly becomes a small town over some strange or freak or serendipitous event, and Eastwood captures that.
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The conflict of “Sully” is not the heartwarming story splashed across the cover of the New York Post, it’s the investigation and hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board, out to detect any human error in the 208 seconds, on behalf of the airlines and their insurance companies. It proves difficult for reluctant hero Sully to embrace his own heroism when behind closed doors he’s being grilled about his personal life, confronted with computer simulations and data that demonstrate he could have made a landing at an airport. Coupled with his own traumatic memories and nightmares of the event, it’s hard for him to accept the hero label.
During the hearing, Sully urges the board to consider the human element — the humans making decisions under duress, not computer simulations. “Sully” is about a hero, and a story that enthralled a nation desperate for good news, but it’s more about that intangible human element. Good people doing their jobs thoughtfully and at the height of their abilities, working together under unprecedented and extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes all of those things come together to create a miracle, and “Sully” is a warm reminder of that.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Laura Linney, Holt McCallany, Chris Bauer.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Running time: 1:36.
Rated: PG-13, for some peril and brief strong language.