Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, “Sully,” is about a man who is excellent at his job. Specifically, it tells the story of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger and how, on a frigid January afternoon in 2009, he came to land a plane on the Hudson River. The movie is economical and solid, and generally low-key when it’s not freaking you out. That it unnerves you as much as it does may seem surprising, given that going in, we know how this story ends. But Mr. Eastwood is also very good at his job, a talent that gives the movie its tension along with an autobiographical sheen.
The story largely involves what happens after Sully (Tom Hanks), his crew and his passengers were plucked from the river, specifically theinvestigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. The investigators, a panel of long-faced, mostly male judges, poke and prod at Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (a sturdy Aaron Eckhart), forcing them to defend ditching the plane into the Hudson. Framed as a series of face-offs, the inquiry registers as more testy than adversarial, and the casting of comfortably familiar character actors — Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan and the affable-looking Mike O’Malley — implies that these sleuths aren’t inquisitors, just rolling up their sleeves to get right to work.
Mr. Hanks slips into Sully easily, with a grandfatherly wreath of white hair, a tidy mustache and an air of steadfast, professional calm that’s only occasionally beaded in sweat. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role, except perhaps for an older Matt Damon, another actor who conveys the old-fashioned, stoic heroism that movie companies have been outsourcing to Australian actors for years. So many younger actors read as slier than Mr. Hanks, whose appeal has always been that he seems like an awfully nice guy. It takes talent to persuade a mass audience that you’re decency incarnate, but Mr. Hanks goes one better by making decency into something like soul.
Mr. Eastwood’s filmmaking is expedient (no fuss, no muss), detailed and distinguished by sudden beauty, as when Sully, after the accident, stands alone while framed against the wintry lead-gray sky out of which he just fell. Mr. Eastwood is a musician, and he plays with the story’s competing moods and rhythms with suppleness, setting one scene to the steady beat of everyday life, only to amp another until it races like a thudding heart. The accident, which remains unnervingly in the register of the real, is a master class in direction, as the reassuring engine hum gives way to a spooky near-silence that’s soon punctured by gasps, cries and terrifying shouts: “Brace, brace! Heads down, stay down!”
“Sully” is a portrait of a hero — Mr. Sullenberger’s decision to land the plane on the Hudson helped save 155 lives, his own included — but one who, after the accident, is troubled both by what might have been (death, destruction) and by an unassuming man’s discomfort with the spotlight. Sully isn’t cut along the cynically frayed lines of assorted current screen heroes, with their nihilism lite and butchery, nor does he fit the existential mode, the man in revolt, like Jason Bourne. Sully is hewed from more classical stuff; he’s the hero whose dignity, as Lionel Trilling wrote, “is wholly manifest in word and deed, in physique and comportment.” Yet Sully is also very much alone, separated by ability and character, as well as by all the directorial choices that isolate him.
Heroism has long been one of Mr. Eastwood’s themes as an actor and a director, though his portraits tend to be complicated by an annihilating violence often unthinkable in the classical Hollywood days. Draped in black, as if swathed in mourning crepe, some of his most memorable later movies explore the tragic consequences of violence, which runs through communities and individuals alike. They’re profoundly, sometimes uncomfortably, American testaments. By contrast, there’s no tragedy in “Sully,” just sighs of relief, probing questions and an outwardly uncomplicated hero whose extraordinariness is so deeply imbued that it is finally the most ordinary thing about him. You might think that Mr. Eastwood had mellowed, but the very singularity of this movie’s hero suggests otherwise.
MANOHLA DARGIS/NY TIMES