It was one of the biggest news stories of 2009. On January 15, US Airways Flight 1549 had just taken off from LaGuardia when the plane collided with a flock of Canadian geese, effectively damaging and cutting off both engines. With no other option, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles were forced to attempt a water landing on the Hudson River. Amazingly, all 155 passengers survived. In the media, Sullenberger was branded a hero. What isn't as well known is his tense experience in the days following the accident, he and Skiles becoming the focus of an investigative inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board. Based on Sullenberger's memoir "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters," co-penned by Jeffrey Zaslow, "Sully" is an empathetic centralized biopic, predominantly taking place within the one-week span following the near-catastrophic incident. Director Clint Eastwood (2014's "Jersey Boys
") and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (2007's "Perfect Stranger
") are less interested in making a hard-hitting character profile than they are in observantly presenting the events as Sullenberger grapples with the first signs of PTSD while attempting to defend his name and career from board members looking to pick holes in his actions during those fateful 208 seconds. Gripping and tightly wound, the film does nothing to sully its attention-grabbing true story.
Memories of the "Miracle on the Hudson," as it was touted in the press, come rushing back during this riveting, fascinatingly laid-back big-screen treatment. Eastwood judiciously parcels the harrowing airplane landing throughout his compact 96-minute running time, depicting it from different perspectives and, in a chilling early dream sequence, with a starkly different outcome. Sully may have played a crucial part in saving the lives of all his crew and passengers onboard, but the NTSB second-guess his decision-making and responsibility, claiming one of the engines was merely on idle and challenging him on not turning the plane around and landing safely back at the airport. The picture captures an emotional resonance far beyond the crash itself, its tricky, frustrating dichotomy between the overwhelmingly positive press Sully receives and the criticisms leveled at him from behind closed doors infesting the narrative's provocative bones.
His hair cut short and whitened, Tom Hanks (2015's "Bridge of Spies
") effectively essays Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, a pilot whose 42-year career is seemingly judged for what he did during two and a half minutes. Understandably restless and uncomfortable in light of the trauma he experiences and the sudden attention he receives, Sully finds himself separated from his family, lost and quarantined in the Big Apple until after the NTSB hearing. In a performance that is touching without being showy, Hanks adeptly plays Sullenberger as an imperfect but upstanding man rather than an untarnished demigod.
Aaron Eckhart (2013's "Olympus Has Fallen
") lends solid support as faithful co-pilot Jeff Skiles, the only other person who knows exactly what it was like in that cockpit, keeping their calm and professionalism while still remaining unequivocally human in the face of a would-be tragedy. Less impressively handled is Laura Linney (2016's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
"), literally phoning in her role as Sullenberger's wife Lorraine as she acts all of her scenes over her cell while rattling around their suburban home. A final moment between the two of them after they are reunited might have gone a long way in smoothing over the thanklessness of Linney's participation.
"Sully" consistently reverberates with authenticity, sticking closely to the subject at hand without wandering off into melodramatics or Hollywood-style conventions. An early flashback to its lead protagonist as a 16-year-old is undernourished and, thus, feels out of place, but the proceedings are otherwise captured with delicate, unforced precision. Cinematographer Tom Stern (2011's "J. Edgar
") lushly beholds his twinkly-lit Manhattan locations with an aura of magical admiration, subtly underlining Sully's equal parts alienation and reverence. The climax, set during the NTSB hearing as a series of flight simulations attempt to discount Sullenberger's aptitude, draws remarkable tension from its quiet, careful, pin-prick pacing. Weaving an enthralling tale hidden behind the one everyone read about in the press, "Sully" is a stirring entertainment, persuasively told.