Sully
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart
Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
1 hr. 36 minutes

True heroism demands intangibles that defy the hyperbole so prevalent today. Being a real hero entails valor, calm and putting others before oneself. Genuine heroes consider their actions simply doing the right thing.

When Canadian geese struck US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan. 15, 2009, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, in his words, did his job, and brought the crippled aircraft down safely in the Hudson River. Since that near-freezing afternoon, a film version of the story was inevitable. The miraculous “water landing,” as Sully called it, in a cold river lapping the shores of Manhattan and New Jersey, made for a plot better than The High and the Mighty, Fate Is the Hunter, Airport or any classic air disaster movie. The sheer nature of this event demanded a high caliber of creative artists to bring it to the screen. That’s what makes Sully such a fine motion picture: the confluence of talent that collaborated and gave us this exceptional result.

First, Clint Eastwood’s work as a director gets better as he ages. He’s lost nothing. His touch is deft: heartbreakers, tragic tales, action, acts of character and heroics are safe in his capable, iconic hands. Second, Tom Hanks, in the title role, is the actor of our time. Think of what he brought to Captain Phillips, Cast Away, Saving Private Ryan, Apollo 13 — and those aren’t even his Oscar-winning roles! His portrayal of Sully projects all of the pilot’s exceptional qualities, and his trauma.

We know the story of what happened that day over New York City, and the media circus that ensued. The real conflict behind the landing in the Hudson, however, was not just the cross of notoriety Sully and his family had to bear, but the yoke of responsibility that the National Transportation Safety Board wanted to lower upon his neck. While Sullenberger was celebrated everywhere, from the networks and local news to The Late Show with David Letterman (Dave named his dog Sully!), the NTSB was grilling Sully and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, in full push-broom mustache).

After answers, the NTSB, in the film, appears hellbent on deeming Sully’s actions an unnecessary risk. Todd Komarnicki’s script, adapted from Sullenberger’s memoir (with Jeffrey Zaslow), Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, cleverly fashions sequences that take us from Sully’s recurring nightmares to the cockpit during the emergency; from his early years as a pilot to talking on a cell phone with his wife (Laura Linney), never failing to express his love and concern all the while; and finally as he is confronted by the unctuous Board, headed by Charles Porter (comic Mike O’Malley in a smarmy turn). It should be noted that the spokesman for the actual NTSB reacted negatively to the agency’s depiction in the movie.

The public was not aware that Capt. Sullenberger’s decisions were being questioned. This is where Hanks particularly shines, and where Sully in real life remained stoic, standing his ground, never doubting for a moment that “eyeballing it” was doing what he had to do to save 155 lives.

Sully’s visuals are stunning. Tom Stern’s cinematography is splendorous, shot with digital IMAX cameras. The only footage of the actual landing is a wide shot from a security camera on a dock off Manhattan. What we are treated to on screen is a vivid re-creation of the bird strike, the banking, the gliding of the aircraft over New York, then the way it cuts across the ice-cold Hudson with the violence of a torpedo.

What makes one appreciate what is depicted, though, is Sullenberger himself. His professional, collected, upstanding demeanor is akin to so much of what Eastwood and Hanks have previously brought to the screen in their careers. It’s uncanny that the man is an actual flesh and blood human being. But he is.

Even though we know the facts about the events in Sully, there’s a feeling of relief that tragedy was averted, and an appreciation that this film is about, and named for, a man so admirable.