Clint Eastwood likes to depict real-life Americans under pressure who save the day. Notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover saved the day in Eastwood’s biopic “J. Edgar” (2011) starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and Eastwood portrayed an individual toiling under significant pressure to defend the United States against the scourge of Communism. Similarly, in 2014’s “American Sniper,” Eastwood presented heroic Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as he put everything on the line to keep as many of his fellow soldiers alive with his superb marksmanship skills. In Eastwood’s 35thfilm as a director, “Sully” (***1/2 OUT OF ****), the two-time Oscar-winning helmer pays tribute to Sullenberger as a professional who felt that he was only doing his job. As the eponymous hero, Tom Hanks makes a sympathetic but effective protagonist, much as he did in the earlier 2013 seafaring hostage thriller “Captain Phillips.” Mind you, the notion of suspense is a foregone conclusion. Everybody knows Sully was a genuine hero who executed one of the most incredible forced water landings of a commercial passenger aircraft in history when he glided US Airways Flight 1549 into the chilly waters of New York City’s Hudson River in 2009 without a single fatality. Not only did Sully perform an act of unparalleled bravery, but also the first responders displayed comparable gallantry in rescuing Sully, his crew, and his passengers. Nevertheless, beneath the surface of his icy demeanor, Tom Hanks never lets us forget that Sully was made of flesh & blood, was racked by doubts and fears, and principally about what might have happened had he not followed his instincts and experience.
Despite the fact that we know Captain Sullenberger survived the river landing in real life, director Clint Eastwood opens “Sully” with an audacious scene. Sully’s aircraft crashes into Manhattan, and fireball explosions galore erupt with horrific consequences. Sully (Tom Hanks of “Forrest Gump”) awakens from this nightmare in a Big Apple motel. Throughout the rest of the film, he ponders what else that he could have done, and later has another nightmare wherein Katie Couric calls him a “fraud” on network television. As Eastwood’s account of the incident shows, trouble struck US Airways Flight 1549 on its New York to Charlotte, North Carolina flight, about three minutes after the aircraft had lifted off from La Guardia. A flock of Canadian geese crossed the flight path of the Airbus A320 as it was ascending to 3000 feet, collided with its two powerful GE turbofan engines, and were churned in an aviary slush. If you read Sullenberger’s autobiography “Miracle on the Hudson,” he describes the birds as “slurry” after the engines ground them up, and the smell of charred fowls filtered into the cabin. The aircraft lost both engines and neither could be brought back into service. The veteran pilot “eyeballed” his options and decided to ditch in the drink. “Brace for impact,” Sully warned his crew and passengers about a minute and a half before he glided the 70-ton jet into the Hudson. Miraculously, the plane neither blew up nor sank. Sully, his First Office Jake Skiles (Aaron Eckhart of “The Dark Knight”), and their three flight attendants evacuated the aircraft before water rose above the seats in the single-aisle cabin. First responders and scuba cops appeared on the scene, and everybody was bundled in jackets and carried to either side of the Hudson. One mild subplot involves a family of three grown-ups who are separated during the multi-vessel rescue operation. Ironically enough, these three had scrambled to get aboard Flight 1549 before it took off. Meanwhile, Sully was desperate to know if all passengers had been accounted for. Eventually, after a hospital check-up later during the day, he received confirmation that everybody had been located. “Perfect Stranger” scenarist Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay divides the incident into three stories: Sully and his encounters with an adversarial National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), several telephone conversations with his anxious wife Lorraine (Laura Linney of “Mr. Holmes”), and the actual incident in the Hudson itself. One amusing episode has a restless Sully jog from his motel to a Manhattan bar for a drink. Pete, the bartender (Michael Rapaport of “True Romance”), brags about their new alcoholic concoction named the Sully. According to Pete, the libation consists of Grey Goose vodka and a splash of water. Meantime, each time that Sully and Jeff deal with the NTSB, the board is contentiously brusque, and Sully worries about his career, largely because he wants to see the flight simulations of the incident. Basically, the NTSB emerges as the villains until fade-out.
Suffice to say, “Sully” is about as succinct as a mainstream Hollywood film can be. Eastwood has delivered one of the more focused films of his 45-year career clocking in at 96 trim minutes. Despite its austere brevity, you will never feel like you have been slighted. You get to experience the forced water landing at least twice along with some other exciting aerial shenanigans. Aside from another show-stopper of a performance by Hanks, Eastwood has surrounded him with a first-class cast, right down to minor roles. Jamey Sheridan, Mike O’Malley, and Anna Gunn comprise the NTSB panel, and they make classic villains. Recently, the actual NTSB has complained that they weren’t anywhere as dastardly as Eastwood and company have portrayed them. Nevertheless, good, solid, dramatic films require the presence of a villain, and they fit the bill adequately because our hero has to answer to them. The water landing looks about as real as you might imagine it, and Eastwood shows it from the perspective of several observers who happened to spot the plane as it went down. However, don’t go to “Sully” searching for melodramatic heroics like the John Wayne classic “The High and the Mighty” (1954) because you will walk out definitely disappointed. “Sully” celebrates not only an American, but it also celebrates American character in general, and Eastwood’s epic may rank as the best feel-good picture to illuminate screens in a long time.