While "Sully" will be a much easier film to like for some audiences than Clint Eastwood's last outing, "American Sniper" (2014), both movies are essentially about the same things. The ways a man can both give himself and lose himself to professionalism. The annihilating self-doubt that can be brought on by physical trauma. How the people we call heroes are anything but heroes to themselves.
The difference is that Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger saved lives — 155 lives, to be precise — whereas the American sniper took them. As I said, a less complicated movie to get behind. And there's Tom Hanks, still the best guy our pop culture has to offer, as Sullenberger, who on Jan. 15, 2009, piloted US Airways Flight 1549, both of its engines disabled by a flock of birds, to an astonishingly safe landing in the Hudson River in New York City.
It was one of those miracles of skill and luck that is barely to be believed, and the suspense of "Sully," based on Sullenberger's 2009 memoir, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters" (written with Jeffrey Zaslow), is that some people didn't believe Sullenberger had to ditch the plane at all. Eastwood could have directed a straight-up bio-drama that climaxes with the water landing, and it would have made a perfectly fine TV movie. But Todd Komarnicki's script begins on the morning of Jan. 16, with Sully waking up from a nightmare of what could have been, and it immediately plunges him into a cauldron of uncertainty.
A meeting of the Operations and Human Performance Examination of the National Transportation Safety Board makes clear that the version of events presented by Sully and his copilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), won't be taken at face value. The panel is a group of implacable bureaucratic killjoys led by Mike O'Malley ("Concussion," "Glee"), with his doorstop of a face, and including Jamey Sheridan ("Spotlight"), Anna Gunn ("Breaking Bad"), and some black guy who doesn't get any lines. Couldn't Sully have safely guided the stricken passenger jet back to LaGuardia Airport or Teterboro, in New Jersey? The computer simulations, with their "return scenario algorithms," say he easily could have.
I imagine Clint Eastwood thinks return scenario algorithms are for weenies.
"Sully" doesn't come out and say as much. On the contrary, for much of its trim 91-minute running time, the movie intriguingly dramatizes a mild-mannered hero's dark night of the soul. Hanks plays Sully as a graying, methodical, uncharismatic man, which — face it — is exactly who you want piloting your fully loaded Airbus A320 to Charlotte, N.C.
Stuck in a Manhattan hotel as he awaits the safety board's next move, isolated from his wife (Laura Linney, elegantly and literally phoning in a thankless role), dropping into bars or jogging through Times Square at midnight, frog-marched to appearances on "Letterman" and interviews with Katie Couric, Sully keeps looping back to the near-disaster, obsessing over an endless chain of decisions made on the fly. His entire career has been preparation for this moment. And yet he confides to his wife, "Maybe I blew it."
Similarly, Eastwood and his filmmaking team keep coming back to the event itself, dramatizing it from the point of view of the passengers, the airplane's crew, the rescue squadrons in air and on water. Toward the end, Hanks's Sully acknowledges that there were many heroes that day, and "Sully" makes sure we get a good look at them all. (Eckhart's Skiles is the movie's stealth MVP, entertainingly wry and alert to all the ironies for which Sully is too pure.)
The climax, understated yet triumphant, simply gives us the catastrophe as it was experienced in the frame of the cockpit, choice by hectic, coolheaded choice. It's a surprisingly successful gambit. We come out of the movie feeling almost organically privy to a cataclysm that might have been.
As with "American Sniper," "Sully" gets a little gooey in the final scenes, opting for a simplistic celebration of American know-how, where everything up to that point has been darker and more nuanced. Whether you want to accept it or not, Eastwood remains one of the best and most quixotic filmmakers we have, torn between jingoism and doubt, exceptionalism and despair.
At 86, he's the cranky old man of American cinema, shooing us off a lawn that's mined with pitfalls of our own making. Sully's a hero to everyone except the bureaucrats and himself, and how do you square that? You don't. That's Eastwood. Like it or not, that's art.
★ ★ ★
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book "Highest Duty" by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O'Malley. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 91 minutes. PG-13 (aviation peril, brief strong language).