Review: Tom Hanks sticks the landing as 'Sully'

If you need to land an airplane on a river, your first choice is obviously Captain Chesley Sullenberger. If he’s not available, Tom Hanks and his cool, calm, kind demeanor will do nicely.

The Oscar winner plays up his innate everyman ability as the hero pilot of Sully (**½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters nationwide Friday), the true-life rescue drama directed by Clint Eastwood. Hanks invokes gravitas, deep introspection and even sly wit as Sullenberger, yet the one thing he can’t make up for is the distinct lack of onscreen danger in what could be considered a decently tame disaster film.

As he did with his deadly Middle East missions in American Sniper, Eastwood puts the audience right in the cockpit crisis, with the captain and first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) having to make quick decisions when US Airways Flight 1549 flies into a flock of birds, taking out both engines and forcing the pilots to put the plane down on the Hudson.

Expertly acted by Hanks and Eckhart, as well as crafted in veteran fashion by Eastwood, the emergency landing sequence is short but nicely tense, with Sully making overly sure all passengers are safe.

Instead, most of the film’s conflict occurs in the aftermath: Both pilots are hauled in front of a National Transportation Safety Board, the closest the movie comes to having actual antagonists. They’re seemingly bound and determined to prove that Sully was in error and could have made it to a nearby airport. (The unsubtle message is that the powers-that-be would have rather saved a plane.)

Sully also has a severe case of PTSD, and he’s haunted by what could have happened. Eastwood captures eerie and effective 9/11 imagery in those scenes, plus briefly offers Katie Couric as a chastising foe who shows up in the press-shy good guy's nightmares.

For his part, as he’s done in so many movies (such as last year’s Bridge of Spies), Hanks pulls off the earnest optimism and unassuming humility that made Sullenberger a media darling right after the incident. Eckhart’s Skiles has a little more edge to him, and together they’re a fantastic and often funny duo when the pilots have to defend their actions.

What’s missing most, though, is real conflict. The actual rescue took a quick 24 minutes and was an exercise in impressive efficiency; too much of the movie’s tight 96-minute run time is spent getting to know mostly unnamed passengers whose primary purpose is to be saved by Sully.

While it's not a biopic per se, some of the main character’s backstory — and how this guy was able to steely save all 155 aboard — is hinted at too fleetingly, and what’s learned of his personal life is gleaned haphazardly from teary calls between Sully and his worried wife (Laura Linney).

In some ways, Sully makes the extraordinary almost too ordinary. But when Hanks proclaims to bureaucrats, “We all did it, we all survived,” it’s not hard to feel a little proud re-living a moment of mankind being awesome to each other.


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