Chesley Sullenberger’s historical nameplate has been lionized and lampooned; celebrated and satirized. The airline pilot’s dutiful, collected, and heroic stoicism in the face of certain peril rotated the axis of world news in January of 2009, when the plane he was flying, an A320-214 airbus, was sent belly-first into the frigid Hudson River. Here, director Clint Eastwood fashions a reenactment of the proceedings, complete with flamed out engines, tense volleys of dialogue between investigators, and a withdrawn, existential, performance by Tom Hanks.
In Eastwood’s heightened exploration of cause and circumstance, of valor and luck, Hanks plays the punctilious Sully with a bereaved brow and a weary voice. An everyman under extraordinary duress and conflict. It’s a role that the sixty-year-old actor has played, almost exclusively, for most of his celebrated career. The pockets of unintentional wisdom pour from Hanks in self-defeatist intonations: What does it mean to do the right thing? Few other actors could play the dewy-eyed, fatherly sheepherder of emotions. In another timeline, perhaps “The Color of Money”-era Paul Newman may have stepped into this role with a silvered and curt sagacity. Or maybe Henry Fonda would have implemented an amalgamation of shaky confidence and nuanced self-doubt. But, ultimately, Hanks is really the only man for the job. And he gives a terrific, unflappable performance.
While the bullied undercarriage and the bird-bombarded engines of the airplane serve as the centerpiece of the film’s action, much of Eastwood’s opus butterfly leafs into fascinating scenes of Sully and his copilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), fending off combative investigators with the use of erudite language. The interplay between Eckhart and Hanks is beautifully subtle and excellently acted. The entire movie works, elegantly, save for a thankless role where Laura Linney is reduced to a stammering, phone wielding wife: A vapidly two-dimensional award-bait trope that that she, only months earlier, had parodied on “Inside Amy Schumer”.
Eastwood’s “Sully” manages to sidestep maudlin, overarching themes of humanity and tenuous unease that plague some of his more weepy pictures (“Invictus”, “Hereafter”) and instead finds a way to capture mortality and self-effacing uncertainty with an unencumbered realism. It’s intensely surprising that Todd Komarnicki had the ability to pen such a perceptive, beautiful, and compelling script after a nine year absence from screenwriting (he may have deserved it after the unforgivable awfulness of “Perfect Strangers”).
While the laconic Chesley Sullenberger has become synonymous with courage and fortitude, Eastwood’s movie is vital because of the way it analyzes the recesses of titles, designations, and public opinion. It asks questions about human error, technology, and numbers. About the fog of celebrity. “Sully” is not only a visceral experience, but a smart film.