After a summer movie season full of horrendous and spectacularly ill-conceived sequels and reboots, along comes Clint Eastwood, on the first weekend of the fall season, to remind Hollywood how it’s done with an old-school, unabashedly feel-good biopic that features Tom Hanks at the top of his game.
Most viewers will be familiar with the story of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the U.S. Airways pilot who miraculously landed a severely damaged passenger airplane on the Hudson River in January 2009, saving all 155 souls on board in what would come to be known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
Sully picks up after the events of that day, as Capt. Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks, grapples with sudden worldwide fame and a group of prying investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board, who want to know why the pilot didn’t return to LaGuardia Airport, or head for Teterboro or Newark, after both of the plane’s engines were knocked out by bird strikes shortly after takeoff.
Much of the brisk, 95-minute movie centers on the story most people don’t know; that while Sullenberger was being lauded in media around the world as a full-fledged American hero, he was also being probed by the NTSB over the decisions he and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (a superb Aaron Eckhart) made in the cockpit that day. The actual incident is shown, to greater effect, in flashbacks throughout the movie.
The decision to frame the movie — which is based on Sullenberger’s own 2009 book — around the NTSB hearings was a smart one, from a storytelling perspective. (In reality, the NTSB hearings happened more than a year after the crash). Movies need villains, and a flock of geese doesn’t really cut it.
Mike O’Malley (Concussion) and Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) are particularly good in their roles as brutally skeptic safety investigators, even if it is at times hard to believe their lack of empathy toward Sullenberger. (A former NTSB agent flatly contradicted the film’s portrayal of the board in a statement to Bloomberg, telling the outlet there was “no effort to crucify [Sullenberger] or embarrass him.”)
The decision also allows Tom Hanks to stretch out and do what he does best: act.
Hanks is one of only a small handful of Hollywood leading men who can actually act these days, and he should snag an Oscar nomination for this one, in what would be his first nomination since 2001’s Cast Away. He’s in his element here as the beleaguered captain — who suffers from vivid, plane-crash-filled nightmares after the water landing — as he plots strategy with Skiles and squares off against the relentless investigators.
That Sully ultimately saves the day is already known to most viewers, so it’s the human moments in the film that propel the drama; Sullenberger reassuring his concerned wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) while he’s stuck in New York dealing with the investigation; a passenger (Sam Huntington) filled with relief that his elderly father has survived the crash; a bartender (Michael Rapaport) who can’t believe the hero on the TV screen has meandered into his bar; an NYPD diver (Jerry Ferrera) who rushes into action to save the soaked and freezing passengers.
It is fitting that Sully‘s release comes after a summer full of too many familiar aliens and capes; sometimes, the best antidote is a straightforward drama with a true-life American hero at its center that showcases the raw talent of its players.
Oh, and the flight scenes — filmed in IMAX by cinematographer Tom Stern — are pretty awesome, too.
Sully is in theaters Friday, September 9.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum