Over the years, and nearly every time a history-based drama starring Tom Hanks comes along, reporters and critics make the observation that the actor is “the new Jimmy Stewart.” But isn’t it about time that we recognize the two-time Oscar winner for who he really is? While Hanks certainly projects as much decency and easygoing integrity as Stewart, he has his own style, his own winsome rhythms, and an inherent goodness that sets him apart as his own man. If we’re lucky enough to ever see another actor come along with this kind of charisma and career, perhaps the best compliment we might pay this hypothetical performer will be to refer to him as “the new Tom Hanks.” But for now, we have the real thing, a man at the top of his profession in the fourth decade of his career, giving one of his best performances while working for another legend for the first time.
That legend is Clint Eastwood, an 86-year-old actor who has carved out a significant second career as director, having won four Oscars for his efforts, including his masterpiece, 1992’s deconstructionist Western, Unforgiven. And while his latest film may not be remembered as a classic, it’s another in a string of biographies of real-life figures that Eastwood has focused on as he’s settled into the director’s chair. His latest subject? Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, an airline pilot known for saving the lives of 155 people in the “Miracle on the Hudson,” when a dual-engine failure found the captain heroically gliding US Airways Flight 1549 into a forced water landing on the Hudson River just minutes after departing New York’s LaGuardia Airport on Jan. 15, 2009.
The 60-year-old Hanks, his thin, dark hair dyed white with a mustache to match, is an obvious choice to portray the then 58-year-old Sully, a humble hero the world came to know through numerous television appearances when the soft-spoken man was thrust into the spotlight. But Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have taken some questionable liberties in adapting Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty, a memoir co-written by Jeffrey Zaslow.
“In the end, I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds,” says this film’s Sully, a haunted man. When we first see him, he’s waking from a nightmare in a cold sweat, his head silhouetted in closeup in a darkened hotel room in Midtown Manhattan as a thin shaft of light settles across Hanks’ shellshocked eyes, his breathing labored. It’s the eve of an initial inquiry about the accident that began when the plane was struck by a flock of Canadian geese during its initial climb. Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (a jovial Aaron Eckhart) will sit before three stone-faced, fictional members of the National Transportation Safety Board (Boston-born Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan and Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn), who seem more willing to burn a witch at the stake than to praise the heroic actions of Sullenberger and Skiles, as the real NTSB did in the historical record.
But then, Eastwood is known for taking liberties with history, infusing extra doses of drama where little existed. In his last picture, 2014’s wildly successful American Sniper, Eastwood inflated a Syrian sniper who was mentioned in a single paragraph of the late Chris Kyle’s memoir into a full-blown nemesis who stalked Kyle, just as the visions of a crash that didn’t happen stalk Sully’s subconscious here. And like the movie marriage depicted between Kyle and his wife, Sully’s marriage plays out over the telephone, with Laura Linney doing the best she can in a fairly thankless role as Lorraine, worrying about her husband and their unstable finances as the media swarms outside their home.
But fictionalized or not, the drama in this film works well. An event that took place over the course of 24 minutes in real life plays out during 96 expertly edited minutes that present the forced landing three separate times, from different points of view—that of the onlookers, the passengers and the crew—in each of the film’s three acts. The longest look comes during the rescue effort itself, as hundreds of New Yorkers, the memories of 9/11 no doubt still fresh in their minds, quickly mobilize to help save every last passenger of the doomed flight, pulling them from the icy waters of the Hudson. You may shed a tear as Eastwood displays the best of humanity, anchored by Hanks’ pitch-perfect performance as a beautiful little piano theme (composed by Eastwood himself) delicately plays under the rescue.
And while some of the fictionalized drama with the NTSB may bring the film’s highs back down to earth, the visual effects soar. Far from showy, they make it appear as though Eastwood has captured the action as it happened; you believe what you’re watching, and it’s thrilling.
Starring Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, Anna Gunn, Molly Hagan, Ann Cusack, Valerie Mahaffey, Delphi Harrington, Blake Jones, Holt McCallany, Chris Bauer, Brett Rice, Christopher Curry, Michael Rapaport, Adam Boyer, Wilbur Fitzgerald, Jerry Ferrara, Tracee Chimo, Katie Couric and Laura Linney. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.