Clint Eastwood’s versatility as a movie director is brilliantly in evidence with “Sully,” the true story of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger who, impossibly, landed a U.S. Airways passenger jet on the Hudson River on a cold January afternoon in 2009.
Here is a tale that, in other hands, would lend itself to a breathless, “Airport 1975” disaster thriller treatment. And heaven knows the tense moments will have you digging your nails into the seat cushions.
But the story of Flight 1549 is told both in the air and then on the ground when the National Transportation Safety Board commences grilling Capt. Sullenberger, demanding to know why he ditched his plane when — maybe — he could have limped to La Guardia. Surprisingly, the NTSB procedural is almost as absorbing as the crisis in the air.
The action cuts from the hearing before the safety nerds to the moment a flock of Canada geese knocks out both jet engines, turning the passenger jet into an extremely large glider. But those cutaways are clean and coherent. Eastwood’s mastery of his material never disappoints.
Who else but Tom Hanks to play the humble, competent captain? He resumes his Capt. Miller persona from “Saving Private Ryan” — capable, decent, quietly emotional — delivering his 155 passengers and crew much as he delivered Private Ryan to his mother.
Aaron Eckhart was a good choice for the role of co-pilot Jeff Skiles. Stardom has eluded him in recent years, but co-stardom (“Olympus Has Fallen,” “London Has Fallen”) has been good to him. Sully and Stiles are stand-up guys and they hold their own throughout the inquisition initiated by the NTSB hard-asses (Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan and Mike O’Malley). In yet another deft piece of directing, the three bureaucrats gradually impart to one and all that they — like the pilots — are just doing their job. Laura Linney, as Sully’s worried wife, is the only character who lacks dimension. Her scenes are mercifully brief.
The digital legerdemain is everything you’ve come to expect in the modern age. You would swear with your hand on your heart that Eastwood persuaded the New York Port Authority to allow his film crew to land a passenger jet in the Hudson. It looks SO REAL.
Other highlights include the rescue — by ferry boat and helicopter — of the passengers and crew of Flight 1549 and the urgent, somehow terrifying chant of the flight attendants as the plane noses down toward the frigid water: “Brace, brace! Heads down, stay down!”
And good luck holding back the tears during the closing credits when you’re treated to a video of the actual Sully mixing it up in a hangar with the actual passengers. Sully calls the reunion to order with a gentle: “This is your captain speaking … ” And you know from their faces that until the end of their days, Chesley Sullenberger will always and forever be their captain.