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You get the sense that Clint Eastwood knew the moment he saw Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger on the evening news that he would be the one to tell his story on the big screen. If anyone personifies the stoic male hero in popular culture—the quiet man just doing his job—it’s Clint Eastwood. If anyone personifies that figure in real life, it’s the pilot who landed 2009’s miracle flight on the Hudson.
The ringer in this match made in cinematic heaven is Tom Hanks, known more for being warm, funny, and emotive than strong and silent. Even in a war drama like Saving Private Ryan, Hanks’ feelings were on his sleeve. Not so with Sully, whose reserve might have seemed cold or even uninspiring in other hands. The trick to playing him is capturing how his deep sense of duty manifests itself as restraint. Hanks nails it.
It might go too far to say that we forget we’re seeing Hanks on the screen—he’s reached a level of stardom too iconic for that—but we do get a sense we’re seeing an authentic representation of what Sully experienced leading up to and in the aftermath of that fateful January flight. The problem with a film like Sully that’s based on high-profile recent events is that it’s very hard to maintain or even establish tension. We already know what’s going to happen. Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki smartly solves this problem by examining Sully’s own doubts during the subsequent National Transportation Safety Board hearings.
As a board of cynical federal investigators armed with simulation flights and probability data grill Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), we get as close as Eastwood comes to a message—namely that when a true hero appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: The bean counters and bureaucrats are all in a confederacy against him.
The outcome of that showdown is something few viewers will know, and the question weaves conflict throughout. The other feat that Eastwood and Komarnicki achieve is giving us a sense of what Sully saved on Jan. 15, 2009, without ever veering into cliché or emotional manipulation. Our glimpses into the lives of the passengers are brief, but affecting. The mom with her fussy baby, the dad on a golf trip with his sons—they all speak to the sacredness of human life. Sully’s insistence that he can’t leave the sinking plane until he’s certain that he has accounted for every one of his 155 passengers does the same.
In other hands, this element could have felt syrupy. In Eastwood’s, it feels like the eye of wisdom directing us to focus on the true value of all our Sully stories.
Frankly, the two instances of profanity in the movie feel as if they were included only to save Sully from getting a dreaded PG rating—a rating some people apparently think is a death knell at the box office. Sully is rated PG-13.
But the fleeting bits of bad language are a minor complaint compared with the whole. In our too-often juvenile, preening culture, this is a story that celebrates grown-up ideals such as responsibility, personal initiative, and the integrity of doing a job well regardless of accolades or rewards. Those are the kinds of quiet values we rarely see in movies anymore. So you don’t want to miss the chance to see it now.