Make no mistake, a perfectly acceptable peril-in-the-sky movie could have been made about “The Miracle on the Hudson.”
Credit director Clint Eastwood for taking a more ambitious approach to the 2009 flight in which veteran pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger successfully landed a crippled US Airways plane in New York’s Hudson River, with all 155 passengers surviving.
In “Sully,” currently playing in Aberdeen’s Riverside Cinemas, Eastwood mixes the drama of the flight with a sobering commentary on fame and accidental heroism. Aided considerably by Tom Hanks’ strong lead performance, he succeeds in making a suspenseful yet thoughtful film about an event in which the ending is a foregone conclusion.
Working from a screenplay by Todd Komanicki, Eastwood makes the unorthodox decision to begin the movie in the immediate aftermath of the crash (or forced landing, as Sully insists in calling it).
Haunted by nightmares and visions of what might have been, Sully (played by Hanks) is forced to deal with unwanted celebrity and an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The latter has evidence from simulated flights indicating that the plane could have been safely landed at either of two nearby airports. As the flight’s co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) puts it, “They’re playing Pac-Man when we had a cargo of human beings.”
The depiction of NTSB investigators as heartless bureaucrats has already drawn controversy. Suffice it to say that the agency’s real-life employees are unlikely to order extra copies of this film for their video library.
A flashback to the flight, doomed by a bird strike that disabled both engines of the aircraft, doesn’t occur until about the 30-minute mark (and is later reprised). Both the flight and the resulting rescue effort are well-staged.
At only 91 minutes,“Sully” is an exceptionally economical film, which proves to be a double-edged sword. To its credit, it doesn’t get bogged down in extraneous subplots. But it also doesn’t leave much time for character development. There are brief flashbacks to Sully’s boyhood and suggestions of financial difficulties at home, but those elements are abruptly dropped.
Fortunately, the lead role is right in Hanks’ wheelhouse.
As America’s big-screen everyman, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor is an old hand at portraying reluctant heroes. He digs deeper into this character, however, than he did in such similarly themed films as “Apollo 13” and “Captain Phillips.” Emotionally constricted and conflicted with a perpetually haunted expression, he relaxes only near the end, when he realizes that he and the remainder of the crew saved lives merely by doing their jobs.
From an acting standpoint, this is pretty much Hanks’ show.
The underrated Eckhart is saddled with an underdeveloped role, but does have the consolation of getting some of the screenplay’s best lines — including a funny concluding observation.
Laura Linney, a regular in Eastwood-directed films, has the even more thankless task of portraying Sully’s harried wife. Her entire role consists of aborted telephone conversations with her husband. She never shares a scene with Hanks.
While “Sully” may be Eastwood’s best work since his 2004 Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby,” it is also a somewhat atypical film for the 86-year screen icon.
He normally specializes in somber, reflective stories (“Mystic River,” “American Sniper,” etc.) that are more thought-provoking than emotionally satisfying. This time, he delivers a film that could be described as both uplifting and understated.
Given Hollywood’s tendency to overhype such a story, that in itself is a minor miracle.