'Clear for takeoff" comes word from the control tower, and Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles start gunning their Airbus A320 down the runway. Just another day, another US Airways flight - this one from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Charlotte, N.C. A cold, clear January afternoon.
And then, just 100 seconds after takeoff, a formation of Canada geese arrows headlong at the plane. Both engines are struck. Both engines lose thrust. The world knows what happens in the next few minutes: Flight 1549, with 155 passengers and crew onboard, lands in the middle of the Hudson River. Everyone survives.
Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Tom Hanks as the veteran pilot with the white hair and the steady, glinting eyes, is more than just a salutary reenactment of the "Miracle on the Hudson."
Adapted from Sullenberger's best-selling memoir, Highest Duty, with a deftly constructed script by Todd Komarnicki, the film is at once a true-life drama about heroism and people working in harmony under exceptional conditions, and a deconstruction of the flight's aftermath: second-guessing, self-doubt, an administrative body - the National Transportation Safety Board - that appears on the hunt for a scapegoat.
A passenger jet flying at low altitude in close proximity to the Manhattan skyline is a chilling sight. It's impossible not to think of 9/11, and as Eastwood begins his film (startlingly), the camera finds a few New Yorkers, on the street, in high-rises, who witness the incoming US Airways plane with alarm. Oh no, not again. Of course, one of the great things about the Sully story is that it ends not in tragic cataclysm, but in triumph. Something to feel good about in bad times as we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
But as the NTSB hearings get underway - with Mike O'Malley, Anna Gunn, and Jamey Sheridan cast as the grim inquisitors - it looks like things could get bad. Sure, Capt. Sullenberger pulled off an extraordinary emergency landing Jan. 15, 2009, but couldn't he have turned the plane around and returned to LaGuardia, or to nearby Teterboro Airport, to Newark International? The flight simulations indicate he could have; the computer algorithms suggest that his decision to touch down on H2O was reckless, ill-considered.
Sully, then, becomes a story of individualism and instinct, experience and expertise, pitted against by-the-book bureaucrats and cold, hard math. Sullenberger has to become his own advocate, defending his decision, his course of action. No wonder Eastwood - whose whole career, in front of and behind the camera, has been about celebrating the singular, the independent-minded - went for this story.
As for Hanks, he has been on a serious jag of real-life portrayals lately: the lawyer James B. Donovan in Bridge of Spies, Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, the besieged cargo ship commander of Captain Phillips. But the actor's quiet, inward turn as Sullenberger tops them all - he finds the core of the man he has been assigned to play. Strength, good spirit, and humility shine through.
Hanks' Sullenberger looks truly puzzled when a hotel employee, a complete stranger, hugs him like he was her dad. Overseeing the evacuation of the plane on the frigid Hudson - the passengers standing on the wings, huddled in inflatable chutes, shivering in the water as ferry boats converge - Sully takes one last walk (or wade) down the aisle of the plane, searching high and low for remaining passengers. Hanks conveys the pilot's overwhelming sense of responsibility, of personal duty and diligence. It's a bravura performance.
Aaron Eckhart, as First Officer Skiles - Sullenberger's junior, his jokey partner - likewise gets his role just right. "I've never been so happy to be in New York in my life," Skiles says, standing next to Sullenberger on a Manhattan pier, the two men gazing at the plane they've just abandoned, still afloat on the river. Eckhart gets an even better line right at the end of Sully - it's a kicker.
And the movie is a winner.
One of the commuter ferry men declares, as he starts plucking people out of the water, "No one dies today." And no one does. If that isn't hopeful, I don't know what is.
***1/2 (Out of four stars)
- Directed by Clint Eastwood. With Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, and Anna Gunn. Distributed by Warner Bros.
- Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
- Parent's guide: PG-13 (profanity, adult themes).
- Playing at: Area theaters.