Film review: Sully

David Gritten / 29 November 2016

Sully, starring Tom Hanks, celebrates an ordinary man’s quiet heroism.

I’m not sure if this is a compliment or a mild rebuke, but by this time we more or less know what to expect from movies starring Tom Hanks. We’ll get an American leading man who is decent, sober, principled – and someone who maintains his integrity even when he’s thrust into situations far outside his comfort zone.

That was the template for his last two stand-alone feature films, the excellent Bridge of Spies and the amiable A Hologram for the King. Hanks has justifiably been compared with James Stewart, a leading man from a different era. He excels at playing modest, reluctant heroes for whom the audience can root.

His new film Sully is unlike anything Hanks has starred in before, yet in character terms he’s exactly what you’d expect. He plays a veteran airline pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, a calm, confident, plain-spoken man who in 2009 skilfully crash-landed his plane, its engines having seized up shortly after take-off, with 155 passengers aboard, on New York’s Hudson River. Not a single life was lost.

The reaction to his feat was split. ‘Sully’ became an instant hero, a celebrity for a few days. Passing strangers recognised him and stopped him in the street. He was the quiet man who went about his job and saved dozens of lives. But the aviation industry thought otherwise, and Sully and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (an excellent Aaron Eckhart) had to face an enquiry about their actions: would it have been so difficult to get the damaged plane to a nearby airport, this minimising the risk to life?

There are certain difficulties in making an engaging drama about this material. For one thing, we know everything turned out well. Secondly, the state of emergency aboard the plane lasted about three and a half minutes – a tiny proportion of a full length film.

The fact that Sully remains so gripping despite these dramatic disadvantages is largely to the credit of director Clint Eastwood, now 86 years old, and a film-maker who truly knows how to squeeze every last ounce of suspense from a story.

Read our interview with Clint Eastwood

He did it with Hereafter (2010), in which a terrifying tsunami was portrayed on screen, and he does it again in Sully.  Outside the white-knuckle sequences of the crash-landing, the story is framed as one of a decent man with huge experience and moral authority, standing up to bureaucrats who dare to question his judgement with flight simulators and computer data. If this were a western, they’d clearly be the bad guys.

This is not a film to recommend to anyone with a fear of flying, but Sully is a suspenseful, satisfying entertainment celebrating quiet heroism. And Eastwood lets Hanks be Hanks, an actor we have learned to love – even when we know what we’re getting from him before the film begins.

Read our interview with Tom Hanks

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