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'Sully' Nails the Landing

Hanks and Eastwood triumph with a no-frills thriller

(Video) Sully Movie Trailer: The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of the airplane flight's 155 crew and passengers.

Rated: PG-13

Run time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Stars: Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hanks, Laura Linney

Director: Clint Eastwood

In his exquisitely streamlined telling of US Airways Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's miraculous 2009 emergency landing on the Hudson River, director Clint Eastwood has created a film that is much like the man at its center.

Lean.

Direct.

Endlessly inspiring.

And in his star, Tom Hanks, Eastwood has found the perfect actor to convey the casual heroism that made the real-life Sully a national icon.

For those who would avoid Sully because "I know how it ends," guess again. The images from that January afternoon — the intact craft floating improbably in the freezing waters; the passengers nonchalantly standing atop the wings, as if waiting for a bus — are frozen in everyone's memory. But even though all 155 souls aboard survived the episode, Sully did make a mighty risky decision. (Throughout the film, people marvel that this may have been the first time anyone got a chance to use those "in case of water landing" instructions in the seat-back pocket). The Federal Aviation Administration wanted answers — specifically, why didn't Sullenberger attempt returning his plane, both engines crippled by a bird strike, to LaGuardia Airport?

Sully is told against the backdrop of subsequent government hearings on the matter, as Sullenberger and his copilot (Aaron Eckhart) are forced to relive those tense few minutes that measured the difference between life and death. Eastwood's re-creation of the doomed flight itself — seemingly told in real time — is masterly. As departure approaches, he follows a handful of the passengers through their preflight rituals: stopping at the gift shop, running to catch the plane before those doomed doors close. He even takes us on an extended trek down the Jetway — an ordinarily mundane walk that carries, in this case, an excruciating sense of foreboding.

Tom Hanks in 'Sully'

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Tom Hanks stars as Captain "Sully" Sullenberger.

From the moment that flock of birds jams both the port and starboard engines, Eastwood stubbornly refuses to stack the deck with fake drama. Flicking switches, turning dials, glancing steely-eyed out the window, the pilots go about their business as calmly as a pair of air-conditioning techs tracking down a Freon leak. The cabin crew likewise shifts seamlessly into cool-and-calm crisis mode, chanting in endless unison: "Brace, brace, brace! Heads down!" — as terrifying an incantation as one can imagine.

And when the splashdown finally comes — nose up, wings level — we realize it's been a while since we last drew a breath.

In structure, Sully resembles Denzel Washington's Flight of a few years back. Beyond that, the two films could not differ more. In Flight, everything went wrong, then kept going downhill until the drug-addled pilot somehow pulled off a miracle. In Sully, something goes equally wrong, but a savvy pilot — who later credits his 40 years of experience — makes all the right decisions, thoughtfully and methodically returning his passengers safely to earth.

There's another, more expansive, element to Sully: the somber observation that the events of Jan. 15, 2009, occurred not so long after those of Sept. 11, 2001. As the passenger jet speeds below rooftop level just above the Hudson, Eastwood cuts to people inside the buildings on either side, their wide eyes flashing a single, soul-shattering notion: "Not again."

Of all the dramatic moments that Sully provides in its brisk hour and a half, this is the one that will deposit your heart in your throat.

Laura Linney makes the most of her moments as Sully's wife, who in the film never gets closer to him than some tearful conversations on their flip phones. As always, Linney is perfection, but otherwise the entire enterprise is strictly Boys' Night Out.

Sully probably wasn't the best movie to watch the day before I took to the air in a commuter plane, which is where I wrote this review. I therefore made sure to take a good, long look at the pilot as I boarded. She clearly had everything under control.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.

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