*** (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Clint Eastwood
STARS Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart
- Tom Hanks in Sully (Photo: Warner Bros.)
The late, great Akira Kurosawa was 83 years old when he directed his final feature film. Ingmar Bergman was 85, while Sidney Lumet was 82. (By comparison, Alfred Hitchcock was only 76, a mere pup.) It's doubtful Clint Eastwood — or anyone, for that matter — will break the record of oldest working director set by Portugal's Manoel de Oliveira (a whopping 103 years old when he helmed his final feature!), but at 86, the American icon has long outlived his critics and will probably end up outliving us all (although it should be noted that, at 81, Woody Allen is right behind him). Long considered one of the few reasonably sane right-wingers in this country (Clint on gay marriage: "I don't give a fuck who wants to get married to anyone else!"), Eastwood has unfortunately started to slip into Angry Old Man senility (chatting with empty chairs, supporting Trump's racist vitriol). Yet even as he's comfortably ensconced in his "Get off my lawn!" lifestyle, his work as a director largely — and thankfully — remains concise and clear-headed. Even the so-so American Sniper, which attempted to turn sadistic killer Chris Kyle into an NRA-sanctioned Gandhi (cue the film clip from Weird Al's UHF), stopped well short of seeming as it was overseen by Leni Riefenstahl.
With Sully, Eastwood is on sturdier ground. It's unlikely there will be anyone who objects to the hagiographic treatment of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot whose quick thinking and deft maneuvers saved the lives of all 155 people aboard Flight 1549, that fateful NYC-to-CLT voyage that ended with Sully landing the bird (damaged by actual birds flying into the engines) in the Hudson River shortly after takeoff. According to this picture, Sully is decent, reserved, compassionate, and a true American hero. For once, real-life facts tend to corroborate a reel-life depiction of saintliness.
Of course, most films need some semblance of villainy to provide dramatic tension, and here it comes in the form of a panel of National Transportation Safety Board investigators determined to prove that a water landing wasn't necessary and Sully could easily have made it back to LaGuardia. (For their part, NTSB members have objected to the film's interpretation, with one telling CBS News that "We're not the KGB. We're not the Gestapo.") Thus, while the film offers a restaging of the dramatic landing, it spends just as much time on the investigation, with Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, funny and loose) repeatedly forced to defend their decisions.
At a scant 96 minutes — one would have to go back to 2002's Blood Work, 12 films ago!, to find another Clint-helmed project running under two hours — Sully would on paper seem far too short to successfully tackle such a monumental tale; instead, the opposite holds true. Despite the marquee moniker, this isn't a biopic about the life and times of Chesley Sullenberger (the obligatory scenes of a young Sully taking to the skies are brief and unnecessary) but rather a look at this one particular incident. As such, Eastwood and scripter Todd Komarnicki (working from the book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) find themselves with time to kill, and thus throw in sequences involving either Sully's wife (a wasted Laura Linney, whose principal co-star is the cell phone in her hand) or... groan... predictable dream sequences in which Sully sees his plane crashing into New York skyscrapers (thus invoking memories not of the "Miracle on the Hudson" but of 9/11).
These bits serve mainly as padding, but they're easily forgotten whenever the film reverts back to either the flight or the investigation. In all these scenes, Hanks demonstrates his willingness to underplay (a perpetual plus when it comes to this fine actor), and he brings quiet strength and dignity to the proceedings. It's a grounded performance in service of a man whose heroism took flight at the right moment.