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Tom Hanks deals with the aftermath of heroism in Sully.

Named for US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, Clint Eastwood’s film tells the real-life story of how, in January 2009, Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles successfully executed the water landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, after both of their Airbus A320 engines were incapacitated after sucking in a flock of Canada geese shortly following takeoff. Despite the inherent danger of a water landing and the Hudson’s bone-chilling temperature, all 155 passengers survived the crash, lauded by many as a miraculous event and a testament to Sully’s 40 years of experience in the air.

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, and the movie follows Sully (Tom Hanks) as he and Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are immediately whisked away to a Marriott near Times Square to explain his decision to ditch in the river instead of diverting to a landing strip at nearby Teterboro Airport, just across the Hudson in New Jersey.

Since the film is based on actual history over seven years in the rearview mirror, there’s no danger of spoiling the ending for anyone who paid attention to the news at the time. For those who didn’t, Sully, against all odds, made a successful, if controversial, landing in the Hudson –– the film dramatizes the ensuing investigation. Calling Sully’s landing improbable barely does his feat justice, but the airline’s insurance carrier cared far less for Sully’s skill and heroics than it did about whether he followed the right procedure or not. It’s an interesting new story, but at times, Sully’s quest to exonerate himself isn’t enough to carry a feature-length movie.

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In the hands of a lesser lead, the film itself would likely falter and crash. Hanks is measured and calculated. For all of his doubts and the PTSD-inspired hallucinations of his plane inexorably dive-bombing into the Manhattan skyline, Sully is convinced in the rectitude of his own experience –– Hanks easily broadcasts the cool, logical certitude of a veteran pilot. Eckhart parries the remove of Sully’s technological intelligence with pep and sarcasm. Because of the contrast between the two, he sometimes comes across as a kid blurting out the answers in class.

Along with Hanks and Eckhart, Sully is crewed by some venerated actors. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife Lorraine, Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn is the crash expert bolstering the airline’s inquiry, and character actors like Jamey Sheridan and Jerry Ferrara (Turtle from HBO’s Entourage) pop up often. Unfortunately, even an actor of Linney’s caliber gets fed some dull lines, and Eastwood’s penchant for shooting as few takes as possible doesn’t help. Hanks gets away with it because Sully’s semi-detached personality allows for it, but too often the dialogue has trouble climbing above exposition. Worse, the story really stalls when it tries to make the audience care about the passengers –– in real life, who is happy to meet a trio of dinguses headed to a golf vacation crowding onto a flight at the last possible second? Who is ever thrilled about sitting next to a baby? Eastwood allows only for basic sketches of a handful of passengers, and when they inevitably make the rescue more challenging, the film becomes frustrating for bothering with them at all.

That being said, when Sully and Skiles give their testimonies in the third act, the real-time events (played out as an unbroken flashback from takeoff to crash) are harrowing in the way that Titanic made you never want to be on an ocean liner in the process of sinking into the North Atlantic. Hearing the flight attendants chant, “Heads down!” as the plane impacts the river is downright terrifying –– if you harbor a fear of flying, the crash scenes won’t do you any favors –– and so is watching 155 people crowd onto the wings of a plane steadily filling with water. And yet, watching the various rescue services swing into action is thoroughly satisfying, as is Sully’s final vindication. While much of the movie feels a little hurried –– Sully’s personal and fiduciary dramas are played out with Linney over the phone, and most of these scenes feel perfunctory at best –– the pace of the last third of the film makes up for it.

Sully, like the pilot for which it’s named, is generally likeable, and Eastwood is never incompetent at telling a story. Despite the quality of its players and parts, Sully is not an incredible movie. But it’s a good rendition of an incredible story. While Eastwood’s direction hits some bumps, his crew manages to safely land this vehicle.

[box_info]Sully
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and Laura Linney. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Todd Komarnicki. Rated PG.[/box_info]

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