Tom Hanks. Picture: SUPPLIED
Tom Hanks. Picture: SUPPLIED

His name may not be immediately recognisable to South Africans, but Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger must be one of the most famous aviators since the Red Baron. However, instead of shooting down Snoopy in his doghouse, he was piloting a civilian Airbus 320 in mid-winter in 2009 when, fewer than three minutes out of New York, the airliner struck a flight of Canada geese and was disabled.

In an unprecedented feat of flying, Sully landed the plane successfully on the Hudson River and all 155 passengers and crew were rescued.

This was heroism and acumen on a colossal scale — the aircraft could well have shattered as it struck the water had the captain not relied on his intense knowledge of piloting and what Hemingway called grace under pressure. He became — and remains — a true American hero. Books and advertisements followed; his fame will grow farther now that Eastwood has taken on a crisp biopic that the 86-year-old director was born to make.

Eastwood’s great films (for me, Unforgiven and Gran Torino stand out) indicate well enough that he has no intention of standing down; but also that his private view of US exceptionalism is well-diluted with a certain scepticism. It would have been easy for him to retell Sully’s harsh tale and the Hudson incident with a stars-and-stripes moral. He has done something just a little different.

The casting of Hanks as Sully is brilliant: Hanks — now older, greyer, more contemplative — certainly resembles the pilot. But Sully takes time to thank the hundreds of responders to the emergency, and is fulsome in his praise for his co-pilot (Eckhart) while back home his wife (Linney) is racked by questions over his fate. A hugely professional cast (especially Gunn) supports Eastwood’s vision.

This vision has led him to assemble Sully almost backwards in time — beginning with the questions and indeed interrogation that followed the pilot’s achievement, particularly whether he had made the correct decisions in the crisis. An instant hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board focused on whether in fact the bird strike had destroyed both the Airbus’s engines simultaneously (the first time such an event is known to have happened) while computer simulations seemed to indicate he could have glided to a landing at an airfield within range.

Members of the board have attacked the film for casting them in such a negative manner. But in truth there would have been just such an inquiry — which finally vindicated Sullenberger. "There is always a first time for anything," Sully quietly remarks at doubts over the dual bird strike; and he demolished the simulations as being without any human presence in that terrible cockpit.

Hanks is steadfast in his view that Sullenberger was merely "doing his job", as were the first responders. As the film moves on to show us what actually happened, we entirely believe him. The bird strike is horrifying — and makes one just a little more edgy about air flight without safeguards against the improbable.

Another masterly effect by Eastwood shows us Sully tormented by the alternatives: we see the airliner smash into those towering New York structures, just as Al-Qaeda’s did on 9/11. In other renditions of the near-catastrophe we never see those alternatives — and that Eastwood doubtless depleted his budget in furnishing nightmarish evidence of the near-miraculous choices made by Sullenberger takes his film out of the ordinary.

Bravery and decency are seldom celebrated in current cinema. Even what should be straightforward superhero movies have become entangled in mysterious and devious motives writhing within the overflowing personnel of the partly adult blockbusters.

Eastwood remains the Man with No Name in his creations — so, bickering over details notwithstanding, Sully is first-rate fare.

Produced and directed by Clint Eastwood
Based on Capt Sullenberger’s memoir of the incident
Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn

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