Review: 'Sully'

Though Clint Eastwood's new film has its issues, at least it touts a worthy hero
Logan Lerman (left) plays an awkward college sophomore in 'Indignation.'

Giving the audience what they want—a fantastic aerial disaster in which no one gets hurt—Clint Eastwood's often-pretty-good Sully is highlighted by the self-effacing underacting of Tom Hanks as Chesley Sullenberger. This time, Eastwood is certainly lionizing a higher grade of person than American Sniper's Chris Kyle.

Appropriately, Hanks plays the Diablo Valley-based pilot as a dream movie hero—soft-spoken, reluctant to accept praise. Nerveless, in the cockpit, the fear only strikes him later when he's alone, in the bath, or outrunning the anxiety in jogging sessions late at night.

Winging to Charlotte from LaGuardia, US Airways Flight 1549 encountered a flock of Canada geese. The birds exploded both engines on the Airbus A320. Eastwood's film suggests the real ordeal was to come: suspicious inquiry from the government agents who believed that Sullenberger could have brought the jet home to one of two nearby airports, instead of splashing down on the river.

The story of Sullenberger's forced water landing in the Hudson on Jan. 15, 2009, is natural material for a movie. The silent, powerless jet gliding over the Manhattan skyscape is bad enough in ordinary screen; in IMAX it must be terrifying. Hanks handles the wheel with his fear swallowed down, leaving a rugged Aaron Eckhart (as Flight 1549's first officer, Jeff Skiles) to handle the reactions. Eckhart does the slow burns, the skepticism and utters the seeming sole joke in the movie—an aside about water temperature.

As in American Sniper, there's a nervous wife at home; a squandered Laura Linney doing the very acting-over-the-telephone that she recently satirized on Inside Amy Schumer. (There, Linney was the Oscar-nominated wife in the imaginary Canadian Sniper, shouting over the gunfire: "I can't hear you over all that snipering!")

So Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) is left to represent the women in the audience. If the National Transportation Safety Board conducts itself like the jury members in the trial of Joan of Arc, Gunn's wide, square face, suffused with emotions, shows us that even before the results come in, she knows—deep in her heart—that Sully did the right thing.

The indication of government ill-will has been criticized by the NTSB officials who don't enjoy being presented as villains. Perhaps they shouldn't have taken it personally. Clint Eastwood has been in an unusual business for more than 50 years, and I suspect he thinks that air agencies operate in the same way the movie world does. Why else would the committees, in their beige meeting rooms, look so much like a film press junket, in which half the critics present aren't convinced by the story they're hearing? Sully's complaints about computer simulations that leave out the humanity might as well be an old-time director complaining about CG characters. Being pestered by Katie Couric and patronized by Dave Letterman, being buttered up or manhandled by odd fans, seeing yourself on all the Times Square video screens at once: these are a movie star's problems.

Opening on the 15th anniversary weekend of 9/11, Sully is consoling counterprogramming. "We don't get much good news here in New York especially regarding airplanes," says a minor character here, lest we forget. And Sully is a particularly touching film when watched in Silicon Valley, where age discrimination is considered a smart business practice. No one of a certain age forgets that Captain Sullivan was 57 when he saved the lives of some 150 passengers.

We all know what Eastwood thinks of Michael Moore. So it's bemusing that Moore caught an angle on Sully's post-Flight 1549 career that Eastwood neglects, in his documentary Capitalism: A Love Story. Rather than merely being a hero who fought down a nasty, jesting-Pilate government agency, Sully asked the government to help airline pilots at a hearing. He testified against the weakening of minimum standards for pilot experience being demanded by the airline industry lobby. As Moore observed, the speech was under-attended by lawmakers.

But the stand shows what kind of man Sullivan is: someone who saved lives not just because of his own calm-under-pressure, skill and amazing guts, but because of sterling technology and the strength of regulations.

PG; 96 Mins.

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