In “Sully,” Tom Hanks is playing someone with ramrod rectitude – not exactly a stretch. (Remember “Bridge of Spies”?) Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is the certified real-life hero who, on Jan. 15, 2009, 208 seconds into lift-off from New York’s LaGuardia airport, flew into a flock of birds, knocking out both of his U.S. Airways jet engines only 2800 feet off the ground.
As all the world knows, Sullenberger – who, with his 40-plus years experience as a pilot, believed no other option was available to him – landed the plane safely in the icy waters of the Hudson River. Miraculously, all 150 passengers and five crew members survived, with only a few suffering even minor injuries.
Rest assured director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have found a way to insert some dramatic tension into the proceedings. Not enough, though. Still, “Sully” brings out a little-known aspect of this hero fest: Sullenberger, with his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) for possible negligence in landing the plane in the Hudson instead of LaGuardia or one of the neighboring airports.
Eastwood begins the film with Sullenberger’s nightmare of the plane crashing into a Manhattan skyscraper instead of landing in the Hudson. This establishes the fact that Sullenberger (like Skiles) is certifiably human, despite his supreme level-headedness at the moment of crisis. His rectitude and grace under pressure cannot entirely muffle his trauma. But the occasional blips of post-traumatic stress that Eastwood serves up seem more like concessions to reality rather than explications of Sullenberger’s inner life. For the most part, Sullenberger seems wounded more by the NTSB investigation than by his memories. (In reality, the hearings took place not in the immediate aftermath of the forced landing, but 18 months later.)
Hanks is very good at playing an Everyman, and Eastwood is content to showcase Sullenberger in that way. “I don’t feel like a hero. I was just a man doing a job,” says the captain in his most characteristic moment, and it’s clear that, for Eastwood, this attitude represents the highest masculine ideal. It’s a noble and ennobling stance but also, finally, a bit boring.
There are many kinds of heroism, of course, but the version on display in “Sully” is, well, unsullied, and that sort of thing is more suitable for a monument than a movie. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.)