Sully, with Tom Hanks, lets Eastwood check off some new boxes

You could call Sully — director Clint Eastwood’s straightforward recounting of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, the Miracle on the Hudson, and its aftermath — a meditation on American professionalism as American heroism, except that it isn’t built for deep thought. At about 95 minutes, it’s closer in length to a Rawhide rerun than it is to anything Eastwood has helmed since … well, ever. (You have to go all the way back to 2002’s Blood Work for a Clint pic clocking in at under two hours. Add up Invictus, The Hereafter, Changeling and J. Edgar, the lumbering star vehicles that lard his more recent filmography, and you’re closer to Lord of the Rings territory.)

Sully is, rather, a checklist on the same topic: U.S. heroism as the sum of proficiency, experience, good instincts, selflessness and duty. And, befitting a movie centered on the rigors of commercial flight — rigors left mostly unmeditated upon by passengers, lest any of us remember to panic about zooming above the clouds at the command of other fallible humans — it affirms what’s necessary for the journey.

Most of this is owed to Tom Hanks. As the title character, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, he looks close enough to the real thing: the trustworthy white hair, the brushy mustache, the calm radiation of humble authority. It’s effortless casting, which makes the performance itself easy to take for granted. Todd Komarnicki’s script, based on Sullenberger’s memoir, jigsaws the flight, the water landing and the National Transportation Safety Board investigation and fits the pieces together in sometimes awkward ways, hoping to maximize the suspense of a foregone episode. This approach works better than it should, but its chief virtue is that it lets Hanks modulate Sully’s confidence and doubt over a tight narrative without resorting to a moment’s showiness. There’s no big scene to build toward; the most eventful sequence instead relies, as the historic moment itself did, on extraordinary calm. Check.

This being a disaster movie without a movielike disaster — fiery loss of life — the No. 2 item on the list is a challenge. To manufacture spectacle from a relatively quiet miracle, then, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern go big, shooting with IMAX cameras. And, with loud help from whichever special-effects people presumably did not build the hauntingly unlifelike baby that Bradley Cooper cradled in American Sniper, they also craft a couple of Manhattan-puncturing jet crashes for Sully to imagine as he endures post-traumatic stress. Fifteen years and multiple comic-book-movie levelings after 9/11, these moments don’t shock with all of their designed force. More than you ponder what horror was narrowly averted on January 15, 2009, you try to picture the notoriously unfussy Eastwood storyboarding elaborate FX shots. You fail. But then the director returns you to Hanks’ face, and the actor conveys imagination’s grim burdens in ways that film — this one, anyway — cannot. Which counts: check.

That leaves conflict, so Eastwood drags out his RNC chair, sits the NTSB down in it and wags his directorial finger at flaccid bureaucracy. The investigation is at first harsh. The NTSB’s computer simulations insist that Sully could have returned to LaGuardia or landed at nearby Teterboro Airport; the pilot’s four decades of experience mean little in the room. The actors Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan, each uniquely gifted at summoning the countenances and inflections of persons suited to asking that you take a number and wait a few hours at the DMV, are tasked with putting a collective face on the agency. They don’t get to be much more subtle in their last-act chagrin than they’ve been as paper-pushing skeptics earlier, but someone had to do this job. Check.

Somewhere else on the checklist: support for Sully. Aaron Eckhart plays Jeff Skiles, co-pilot of the Airbus A320 that went down, with an ease complementary to Hanks’, but he isn’t given much to do before he has a last word that’s played like a punch line in a buddy-cop movie. And as Lorrie, Sully’s wife, Laura Linney seems to have spent a couple of days shooting scenes inside a model home and then gone away. She clutches various phones and turns on the family TV and shuts the blinds on the yardful of reporters outside, the latest victim of Eastwood’s storytelling Achilles’ heel. Whether it stems from contempt or simply a tin ear, is there another A-list director so consistently creaky at showing us basic domesticity? When the real-life Lorrie shows up, during the closing credits, you’re glad to see her and her husband in the same room.

During those credits, the music — a score credited to Christian Jacob and the Tierney Sutton Band, with Eastwood as usual providing a simple theme as its basis — unfortunately rises. Till then, there have been wordless sound things from Sutton, all of them painfully distracting but at least short. But there is a song with words at the end, and it is called “Flying Home,” and it is dreadful.

Eastwood is an old director who just did a remarkable new thing: hiring Blu Murray, a longtime assistant of tenured Eastwood film editor Joel Cox, to cut Sully. The result is his leanest movie, and he directs Hanks as well as anyone this side of Spielberg. So there’s reason to hope that he’ll listen if someone on his staff suggests doing the music differently, or not at all, next time.

Categories: Movies