The struggle of how to make movies about world-famous events in a way that enraptures audiences has been a challenge for Hollywood since the dawn of cinema. But the new movie “Sully,” featuring the powerhouse team of actor Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood, show how fact-based films should be done and set a high bar for this year’s Oscar race.
The movie tells the story of how US Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger saved all 155 people aboard Flight 1549 from certain death with his daring maneuver on January 15, 2009. He and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) had just 208 seconds to consider their options between the moment a fast-moving flock of geese pummeled their plane and destroyed both its engines, and the moment they hit the water.

The fact that everyone aboard survived made Sullenberger an instant worldwide hero, leading to thriving careers as a professional speaker and aviation safety consultant as well as his co-authoring two best-selling books. But the inventive screenplay by Todd Komarnicki reveals that Sullenberger went through all kinds of hell to find lasting happiness.

First, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) subjected Sullenberger and Skiles to a major investigation and hearings about the Hudson landing, partly as standard practice following dangerous flights, and partly because the airline’s insurance company didn’t want to pay out zillions in damages to passengers. The NTSB tried to prove that Sullenberger had a few options to land at nearby airports, but the movie manages to keep audiences on the edge of their seats as he is forced to defend himself for one of the most heroic events in aviation history.

But the movie is equally compelling in showing that the media madness that surrounded Sullenberger and his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) also did a number on him. While he struggles mightily to always keep his cool, he suffers from terrifying nightmares, post-traumatic stress and the sudden crush of cameras everywhere he turns.

Yet what stands out most about this seemingly remarkable man is the fact that he never thought he did anything heroic at all, but rather simply considered keeping his passengers and crew alive was a job requirement. Eastwood’s masterful depiction of all the New York City first-responders and US Coast Guard swinging into action to bring everyone off from standing on the plane’s wings and into safety within a total of just 23 minutes is a goosebump-inducing testament to the indomitable spirit of the Big Apple and the unspoken love that binds all decent human beings.
Hanks works wonders in one of his best performances ever, one which should almost definitely bring him an Oscar nomination and very possibly his third Academy Award. He masters Sullenberger’s uncommonly stoic demeanor while also delivering one hell of a speech in the movie’s rousing climactic moments. Eckhart reminds audiences of why they fell in love with him in 2000’s “Erin Brockovich” as he brings some sarcastic zingers to the fore when Skiles comes to resent the investigation.

But it’s Eastwood who’s the most valuable player here, tying together sterling performances, warmly human drama and stunning action setpieces to create a film that reminds us all of what great cinema is capable of. “Sully” puts viewers smack in the plane cabin with the passengers, in the cockpit with the pilots, and in the lonely hotel rooms that drive Sullenberger and Skiles crazy with self-doubt and sleeplessness amid their endless questioning.

To have a movie both thrill viewers with spectacle and shake them to the core with emotional depth is a truly rare achievement. “Sully” is a miracle of the multiplex.