THE STORY of US Airways Flight 1549—which, in 2009, pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger famously landed on the Hudson River—was going to be made into a movie whether we wanted it or not. So the news that Clint Eastwood, nowadays a dimmed, decidedly disappointing figure, was going to direct was neither surprising nor exciting. I’m a bit relieved, then, to tell you that Sully is a far more successful exercise in both dramatic storytelling and patriotism than Eastwood’s 2012 dialogue with a chair.
In another predictable move, Tom Hanks is cast as the title character. Hanks, as we’ve known for decades, radiates that same pure, quiet, boring heroism we’ve come to associate with Sullenberger. It’s exactly what the movie requires. And while there’s a bunch of uninteresting stuff surrounding the flight (Sully has stress dreams! Sully is uncomfortable with his newfound celebrity! Sully’s wife [Laura Linney, a phone pressed to her face in each of her scenes] wants him to come home, please!), the scenes of the actual incident are tremendous moviemaking.
Eastwood’s filmmaking style can seem cursory, even dashed off. But his understatedness is exactly what makes the last two-thirds of Sully more gripping than they have any right to be. (The first 30 minutes are a dull write-off of mumbled lines and place-setting.) Even when things are at their grimmest—and Sully’s stoic, mustachioed, American bravery is the only thing that can protect an Airbus full of 155 people from a flock of Canada geese and the freezing-cold river beneath them—Eastwood shows restraint. There’s no swelling of strings, no tearful blubbering of terrified passengers (not much, anyway), no grotesque manipulation of time for dramatic effect. The flight and its landing are depicted transparently and without fuss. Your knuckles will be white all the same.
After the dramatic landing of Flight 1549, Sullenberger was subjected to an examination period and a public hearing, in which it was suggested he made the wrong call by not returning the plane to LaGuardia Airport as soon as trouble was detected. This process, too, is treated fairly in Sully. Perhaps the greatest of the movie’s credits is the spotlight it shines on co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and the first responders on the ground, all of whom played just as big a part in bringing everyone to safety. We were getting Sully: The Movie no matter what; thankfully, Sully turns out to be the movie these skillful and lucky people deserve.