Tom Hanks, left, and Aaron Eckhart play pilots under investigation in “Sully.” (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Eastwood’s great ‘Sully’ explores the underside of heroism

Clint Eastwood proved decades ago he was a master filmmaker. Now, he’s 86, and rather than resting or coasting, he has made “Sully,” a film that’s more vital, intense, thoughtful and emotional than any 2016 movie by filmmakers less than half his age.

“Sully” is based on the true story of commercial airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).

On Jan. 15, 2009, facing a double engine failure just outside LaGuardia Airport, they safely land their aircraft on the Hudson River, saving all 155 lives aboard. It’s a heroic story, and national news.

But the National Transportation Safety Board investigates, casting doubt on Sully’s decision, finding that one of the engines still had thrust. Computer simulations, recreating the circumstances, show the plane landing safely.

It sounds like a minor movie — and, at 96 minutes, it is by far the shortest movie of Eastwood’s directing career.

But with a canny screenplay by Todd Komarnicki (based on a book by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow) and intricate editing by Blu Murray, it becomes a moving exploration of the underside of heroism.

“Sully” tells the story out of order, returning to the incident a few times, from different points of view, from a harried air traffic controller, to passengers in the cabin.

Stuck in New York waiting for the investigation, Sully phones his wife (Laura Linney) and two daughters, and worries about his future.

Characters occasionally hug and kiss and thank the captain, but he doesn’t feel like a hero. He has nightmares (including a potent one that starts the film) and doubts.

Sully can’t stop thinking about the plane, gliding dangerously low, or floating in the river. The look on his face suggests not relief, but something closer to eternity, a brush with death that nicked his soul.

With a vividly realistic design, the film’s cinematic plane landing is truly devastating, but Eastwood gives equal attention to quieter, smaller scenes, such as Sully stopping to breathe before entering a hearing.

Eastwood’s own personal touch is here as well. Like his masterful “A Perfect World,” “Million Dollar Baby” and other films, “Sully” highlights the director’s distrust of technology, instead championing training, knowledge and instinct.

Mostly though, like the classic, masculine directors of the past, including John Ford, Robert Aldrich, Samuel Fuller and his mentor Don Siegel, Eastwood turns in a film of superb craftsmanship and pounding pulse.

It’s all here. “Sully” is a great movie, a movie just like they used to make, the way Eastwood has made them all along.

Four stars
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Written by Todd Komarnicki
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes

Aaron EckhartChesley “Sully” SullenbergerClint EastwoodJeff SkilesMovies and TVSullyTodd KomarnickiTom Hanks

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