Tom Hanks is easy to take for granted by now, but this later stage of his career sees him inhabiting American heroes in that easy, understated, un-actorly way of his that makes him most natural in all of them, whether it’s Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips, lawyer James B. Donovan in Bridge of Spies or the latest, Captain Chesley Sullenberger in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This one may be his most convincing yet- as the grizzled, serious, very modest professional, he comes across as a decent man befuddled at his recent celebrated hero status while he comes to grips with post-traumatic flashes of the event and prepares to defend his own actions on that fateful day of January 15th, 2009.
We remember this of course. That was the day that Captain Sully rescued all 155 people aboard US Airways Flight 1549 by successfully executing a water landing in the Hudson River after a flock of birds hit the plane less than 15 minutes after takeoff, blowing out both engines. All of New York’s rescue workers immediately came together to save the people stranded on the wings of the airplane as it balanced on the water in subzero temperatures, taking 24 minutes total to get everyone to safety. We remember the pictures, we remember the famous headline (“Miracle on the Hudson”) and we remember the pilot himself.
We may remember the event like it was yesterday, but I have to admit to wondering how they would stretch that event into a 90-minute movie, unless maybe it was going to go down in real time, Paul Greengrass-style. But that’s not Clint Eastwood’s MO of course, who films it as an unconventionally structured docudrama, following Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) on their media travails, while Hanks brings Sully’s uneasiness with his new celebrity, his money woes, and his professionalism to life. The plane crash itself takes place in three different flashbacks from three different angles, which does lend some credence to the idea that they had to stretch this out to feature film length. The phone calls between Sully and his wife (Laura Linney in a somewhat thankless woman-on-the-phone role) also feel like filler here. But the crash and rescue sequence delivers, as the intensity of the moment feels real and vivid, especially as the rest of New York’s emergency workers come together like a well-oiled machine to pull off the miracle.
Sully’s meetings with the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) took place eighteen months after the crash, but for economy’s sake are written into the film to happen within weeks of the incident, and behind closed doors during the ensuing media frenzy. Aside from the riveting crash sequences, it’s Hanks who holds the movie together, and by letting Sully be played by such an automatically sympathetic and inherently watchable screen star, we see once again what has made Hanks such a long lasting presence in American cinema. It’s his everyguy specialness, his ability to make the ordinary and every day occurrences seem bigger than that, therefore when one of his heroes pulls off the extraordinary, it’s that much more believable. When you see him like this it’s a reminder that his talent lies not so much in being himself as in being one of us. And you see again what a rare gift that is.
* * *