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‘Sully’ review: Tom Hanks takes on the hero, victim role

Tom Hanks portrays Capt. Chesley

Tom Hanks portrays Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in "Sully." Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures / Keith Bernstein

PLOT The story of Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot behind the 2009 Miracle on the Hudson.

CAST Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney

RATED PG-13 (scenes of peril)

LENGTH 1:36

BOTTOM LINE The event itself remains a stunner, but Clint Eastwood’s somewhat drab drama sheds no new light on the media-shy pilot.

In January 2009, when Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger reluctantly went on television to explain how he landed a bird-struck US Airways jet in the Hudson River without losing any of his 155 passengers and crew — an event immediately dubbed The Miracle on the Hudson — he repeatedly declined to accept the new label stuck to his chest: hero. His typical response: “I had a job to do.”

At the time, many of us — still shaken by 9/11 and gnawed-at by two Middle East wars — wanted a larger-than-life savior, but instead we got a private, soft-spoken fellow who fled the spotlight quickly. He’s now back in it, played by a white-haired Tom Hanks, in Clint Eastwood’s “Sully.”

“Sully” casts the pilot as not just a hero but a victim of both post-traumatic stress and a heartless bureaucracy. The film’s first images are of Sullenberger’s fiery nightmare version of the landing, followed by scenes of the pilot alone, shaken and brooding as he prepares for questioning by a hostile National Transportation Safety Board. His blood pressure is up, his wife (Laura Linney) is trapped at home by rabid reporters and the only one who understands Sullenberger’s still-in-the-foxhole mentality is co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).

The shellshocked veteran is a figure Eastwood has put up on the screen before, most recently in his searing Iraq War film “American Sniper.” The screenplay for “Sully,” by Todd Komarnicki (from Sullenberger’s book) plays this angle over all others, and the result is a somewhat sullen film starring a tamped-down Hanks. The re-created crash is gripping (even if Eastwood’s attempt to “introduce” us to some passengers feels like the start of a 1970s disaster movie), but “Sully” mostly pits Sullenberger against the second-guessers and numbers-crunchers at the NTSB. The motivation of these characters is never clear. There’s a sense that Eastwood has turned Sullenberger into every self-sacrificing soldier who returned home — from Iraq, Afghanistan or Vietnam — to an ungrateful country.

Does that shoe really fit Capt. Sullenberger? All the guy ever claimed to be was a good pilot who made the right call. That ought to make him hero enough.

4 more pilot films

“Sully,” starring Tom Hanks as pilot Chesley Sullenberger, whose emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in 2009 saved everyone on board, lands in theaters this weekend. The movie joins these others about pilots who flew in some not-so-friendly skies.

THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY (1954) — An airliner helmed by a captain (Robert Stack) who has lost his nerve experiences engine problems. Luckily for the motley collection of passengers, his rugged co-pilot (John Wayne) is on board.

JULIE (1956) — Doris Day starred as Julie, a stewardess who does more than fluff passengers’ pillows. After her psycho husband (Louis Jourdan) shoots the pilot — before getting killed himself — Julie gets a crash course in flying from the crew at the control tower as she attempts to land the plane.

AIRPLANE! (1980) — This riotous parody of aviation disaster movies from “Zero Hour!” (1957) to “Airport 1975” was a box-office bonanza. It was also a showcase for the comedic talents of the usually stoic Leslie Nielsen, Robert Stack and Peter Graves.

FLIGHT (2012) — Denzel Washington starred as a pilot who steers his passengers to safety during an extremely turbulent flight. But he goes from hero to zero after an investigation reveals he flew under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

— Daniel Bubbeo

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