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The trials of an authentic American hero
CLINT Eastwood has a knack for understated excellence that few filmmakers can match. In Sully, he displays the calm narrative touch and economy of style that worked so well in films like Unforgiven (1992), Mystic River (2003) and American Sniper (2014). His latest offering may not be in the same inspired league, but an Eastwood-directed film is still an assurance of quality.
The focus this time is on a real-life incident involving a passenger jet that ditched in New York City's Hudson River when it hit a flock of migrating geese minutes after take-off. The plane lost thrust in both its engines and the pilot, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, decided on a forced water landing instead of trying to make it back to LaGuardia Airport. All 155 passengers and crew survived.
Eastwood approaches the story - written by Todd Komarnicki and based on Sullenberger's book Highest Duty - from different angles and varying time frames, circling the actual incident and focusing on the official investigation and Sully's mental state as he replays the incident endlessly in his mind.
Intense media scrutiny and second-guessing of his actions by officials cause him to suffer moments of self-doubt but in the tension-filled moments between the bird strike and the controlled landing, he performs with admirable grace under pressure - something that can also be said of the actor who plays him.
When it comes to portraying heroes real or imagined, Tom Hanks has long cemented his place on the first page of those who best represent the unflappable Hollywood ideal. He survived a spacecraft accident in Apollo 13 (1995), a plane crash in Cast Away (2000) and a ship hijacking in Captain Phillips (2013), so landing a disabled airliner on a New York waterway in the middle of winter qualifies as relative child's play.
Dealing with investigators intent on showing that he should have acted differently - saving air safety regulators and aircraft insurers a financial headache in the process - is a different matter.
"Why are they looking for something we did wrong when everything turned out alright?" asks co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) to Sully after a brutal grilling by sceptical National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators.
Sully takes refuge in a series of phone conversations with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and the unreserved admiration of ordinary New Yorkers, who recognise his actions and the outcome as nothing short of a miracle.
When computer simulations by the NTSB appear to show that he could have landed the crippled plane safely back at LaGuardia or an alternative airport, Sully's 40-year career, his impeccable safety record and his pension are suddenly in jeopardy. Did he unnecessarily endanger the lives of his passengers?
Through it all, he maintains a quiet confidence in his decision-making and an otherworldly calm in the face of the investigation - abilities that come in handy during the actual emergency.
History reveals what happened to US Airways Flight 1549 on Jan 15, 2009 but the immediate aftermath - including the contributions of numerous first responders and emergency service personnel - is less well-known. Other crew members and a few of the passengers are given brief storylines, but the drama is centred on the title character.
Sully is nicely paced, well-acted and faithful to the source material. A clip at the end credits shows the real Capt Sullenberger at a reunion with a group of appreciative survivors. They, more than any investigation, know what it took to get there. This film never really soars but sometimes, a successful landing is good enough.