Hanks soars in 'Sully' 

Eastwood film examines the 2009 Hudson River plane crash from the captain's seat

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A pair of captains must be Tom Hanks' strong suit.

After a series of merely average performances in the 2000s and early 2010s, it took one captain (Phillips) to right Hanks' acting ship. Though he followed that role with great turns in Saving Mr. Banks and Bridge of Spies, he regrettably found himself wandering in the desert again – both literally and metaphorically – in this year's A Hologram for the King. Enter captain No. 2 to steer the legendary actor back onto a star-crossed path and into one of the best films of the year.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, this is the story of the famous emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009, told mostly from the perspective of the captain, Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. The screenplay, by Todd Komarnicki, examines the crash, the events proceeding and following it, and Sully himself.

"[Flying] has been my life, my whole life," Sully says. And the movie spends considerable time showing us that dedication.

The film's formula works, though it's an odd one. At times simple, almost Capra-esque in its depiction of Sully and his detractors, it is also surprisingly twisty, jumping back and forth in time and digging deep into the PTSD-addled brain of the pilot. And though it makes extensive use of digital IMAX cameras, the film is not really about the spectacle of the crash. Instead, it's about the event's fascinating minutiae and the ability of one man to cope with both the improbable water landing and its emotional aftermath.

Hanks is up to the task, as is Aaron Eckhart as the first officer. Both are convincing, and there's great chemistry between the characters. There's no magic here – you just simply believe the two are doing what they are supposed to be doing. And sometimes that's all you need in a film. That's especially astonishing for Hanks, since his character is a living man upon whose autobiography the script was based, and a stoic man, to boot. So Hanks must portray emotion while often seeming emotionless, and to do that he must rely on his full bag of tricks from 25 years of playing people we admire. Hey, I guess when you've survived Apollo 13, landing a plane on the Hudson is a bit easier.

The supporting cast is just adequate. Laura Linney, in a surprisingly limited role as Sully's wife, does a nice job, but the folksy, pre-flight introductions of the passengers feel a bit too Airport-like. Nevertheless, their stories matter too, and it was wise to include glimpses into their lives, though the film seems less exceptional when Hanks is off screen. It was also a wise, and rare, choice to keep the movie short. (At just 96 minutes, it's refreshingly tight, though it does lose thrust in the third act and comes in for an aesthetically bumpy landing.)

Despite the smart structure and the revelation of details most of us never knew, some viewers may find the film too predictable and TV-movie-like. Instead, this reviewer found it fascinating, gripping and worthy of the legacy of an American hero.

4 out of 5 stars

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