Review: Tom Hanks soars in the true heroics of Eastwood’s ‘Sully’

July 23, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The “Miracle on the Hudson” made national headlines on Jan. 15, 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 suffered dual engine failure by a flock of geese and was forced to make an emergency water landing on the Hudson River.

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger became an overnight hero for his calm under pressure, shining a spotlight on the veteran pilot who’d been flying in anonymity since leaving the Air Force in 1980.

Now, his true tale of heroism becomes a star-studded film drama in Clint Eastwood’s “Sully.” Released on the 15th anniversary weekend of 9/11, the film is a reminder of the horror that New Yorkers must have felt upon seeing another jetliner barreling toward the Manhattan skyline, and the relief and pride as the NYPD, coast guard, diving units and EMT workers rallied to save all 155 people on board.

It’s this heroic effort — and the ensuing controversy, à la Denzel Washington’s “Flight” (2012) — that’s explored in “Sully,” a double meaning signifying both its protagonist (Tom Hanks) and the attempt by government officials (Mike O’Malley & Anna Gunn) to “sully” his name to avoid liability. The National Transportation Safety Board insists he could have made it safely to LaGuardia or Teterboro, backing their claims with flight simulators, while Sully insists simulations can’t account for the human factor.

Who better to steer this film than Tom Hanks? The two-time Oscar winner has made a career aboard doomed U.S. vessels, be it the damaged space shuttle in “Apollo 13” (1995), the boats approaching Normandy Beach in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), the commercial airline crash stranding him in “Cast Away” (2000), or the container ship held hostage by Somali pirates in “Captain Phillips” (2013).

Most actors would hang their hats on such credits, but that barely scratches the surface for Hanks: a kid in an adult’s body in “Big” (1988), a boozy baseball coach in “A League of Their Own” (1992), a romantic radio caller in “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993), an Oscar-winning AIDS activist in “Philadelphia” (1993), another Oscar in his career role as “Forrest Gump” (1994), an animated Woody in “Toy Story” (1995), a prison guard in “The Green Mile” (1999), a gritty gangster in “Road to Perdition” (2002), a tricky politician in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007) and a spy negotiator in “Bridge of Spies” (2015).

By now, Hanks is an American treasure, our generation’s Jimmy Stewart, the aw-shucks everyman  perfect for this tale of everyday heroism. In “Sully,” he disappears into the role, making us forget we’re watching Tom Hanks with a brilliantly subtle performance that takes us inside the conflicted soul of Sullenberger. We see his calm hand under crisis, his quiet reluctance to the sudden attention, and the darkly brewing self-doubt as he confides in his wife (Laura Linney) and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart).

Such inner turmoil is the goal of screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (“Perfect Stranger”), who adapts the script from the book “Highest Duty” by Sullenberger and Jeffery Zaslow. At times, the dialogue in Act One could have used another pass to polish off the remaining draft dust. There are a few instances where the characters speak with on-the-nose dialogue, as Hanks tells Eckhart: “I’m having trouble separating reality,” but the script silences such nitpickery when it takes flight in Act Two and Three.

Rather than present a strictly chronological portrayal of the events, the script jumps around in time from the aftermath to the crash and back again. Such nonlinear storytelling works superbly for a real-life story we’ve seen covered relentlessly in the news, shifting the focus from the crash itself to the man behind the hero, revealing the nightmares, frailty, even dry humor behind his can-do attitude.

Yes, for such a gripping life-or-death situation, there is an admirable amount of levity, from overt wisecracks like the bartender’s joke about Grey Goose and a splash of water, to the more subtle accumulation of humor each time simulator pilots say “birds” with robotic, repetitious monotony.

This mastery of tone and pacing is a credit to Eastwood, who is without a doubt one of the all-time great figures in movie history. His wide-ranging filmography has provided the wisdom of experience to safely land this cinematic flight, pulling lessons from a career divided into three distinct phases:

Phase 1: The Actor. If John Wayne defined the strong, silent type for the Greatest Generation, Clint became the heir apparent for Baby Boomers. From spaghetti westerns to rice-a-roni vigilantes, he learned under the best, watching Sergio Leone direct him as The Man With No Name in “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) and “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” (1966), followed by Don Siegel directing him in “Dirty Harry” (1971), which spawned four popular sequels.

Phase 2: Actor/Director: By the 1970s, Eastwood embarked on a highly successful duality as actor/director, starting with his debut thriller “Play Misty for Me” (1971), frontier classics like “High Plains Drifter” (1973), “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) and “Pale Rider” (1985), the “make my day” phenomenon of “Sudden Impact” (1983), the Best Picture anti-western masterpiece “Unforgiven” (1992), and his steamy Meryl Streep romance in the tear-jerker “Bridges of Madison County” (1995).

Phase 3: Director: As the 21st century arrived, a veteran Eastwood settled into a new role as the wise sage mostly behind the camera with the Oscar-winning crime mystery “Mystic River” (2003), the Best Picture boxing flick “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), the wartime companion pieces “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) and the get-off-of-my-lawn gold of “Gran Torino” (2009) before going on a biopic kick of J. Edgar Hoover in “J. Edgar” (2011), Frankie Valli in “Jersey Boys” (2014), Chris Kyle in “American Sniper” (2014), and now Sully Sullenberger in “Sully” (2016).

Politically speaking, Eastwood is the conservative counterweight to the liberal Oliver Stone, both tremendous filmmakers in their own right with vastly different worldviews. But partisan politics aside, moviegoers shouldn’t care whether Clint talked to a chair at a past political convention. All that matters here is that he’s one of the most assured filmmakers when sitting in the director’s chair.

In “Sully,” Eastwood paints Hanks with half-lit faces (see above) as he symbolically mulls his inner conflict. He constructs nightmarish dream sequences as Hanks suffers PTSD hallucinations as to the horror that might have happened that fateful day. He even peppers the background with clever meta callbacks, like a giant Times Square billboard for “Gran Torino” —  after all, the movie is set in 2009.

But the real directorial brilliance comes in the handling of the crash, shot with IMAX cameras as we “brace for impact” along with the passengers and crew. Mixing sweaty facial close-ups with inserts of hands on the controls and flight attendants chanting in rhythmic warnings, it’s amazing how much suspense Eastwood draws out of an event where we already know the ending: everyone survived.

In a way, the 86-year-old Clint is just like Sully, an aging veteran proving that the human element is the key X-factor that no computer simulation can match. Many of today’s digital filmmakers are like the cynical NTSB here, forgetting that the human touch performs movie miracles while so many CGI trips crash and burn. Give us Hitchcock’s “Birds” over simulator pilots chanting “birds” any day.

As the real survivors appear with Sully in the end credits — just like “Schindler’s List” (1993) —  we realize the real deal is always more powerful than Marvel superhero post-credits teasers: that living, breathing, human decision-making in the heat of the moment is where true heroes are born.

3-and-half-stars

This movie rating is based on a 4-star scale. See where this film ranks among the year’s other movies in our Fraley Film Guide.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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