This is how I imagine a number of conversations go in Hollywood. An excited associate bursts into a producer’s office frantically waving a script in the air. “I’ve got our next big drama right here!” he exclaims. “It’s got true-to-life situations, a big set piece, intimate human feelings, you name it! It’s already garnered interest from some big name directors.”
“Fine,” puffs the producer, “but what about casting? Tell me something about the main character.”
“Oh, he’s a great guy,” the associate says gleefully. “He’s older but not doddering, sort of an idealized dad type. He’s professional and confident in his work, but never in an arrogant way. You know he values you and your contribution just as much as he does his own. He’s mature acting but never a stiff, so everyone immediately feels comfortable around him. He’s just instantly likable. He…”
“Enough,” grunts the producer, “get me Tom Hanks.”
“But, uh, what if he’s not available right now?” the associate queries demurely.
Easing back in his chair, the producer states flatly, “Then we’ll just wait until he is.”
Let’s face it, there are just some roles which call for Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks only. Sully, the character from the new film of the same name, is one of them. Based on true events, Sully tells the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully, for short), who became both an instant celebrity and a target for investigation after successfully ditching his disabled passenger plane in New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009.
The event occurred mere minutes after US Airways Flight 1549 departed from La Guardia airport, only to have both engines disabled by multiple bird strikes. Still over the city and fearing the jet couldn’t make it back to the airport, Sully and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles opted for a forced water landing instead. Such a maneuver had never been completed without loss of life, but due to a combination of skill on the part of the crew, proper safety equipment on the plane, a quick response from rescue teams, and perhaps a bit of divine intervention, all 155 people aboard survived.
But though everyone was cited for a job well done, including God who was given his proper due when the press dubbed the incident “The Miracle on the Hudson,” it was Sully who was awarded the most credit and heralded as a national hero. Behind the scenes, however, the official investigation into the incident began to raise questions about whether the correct call had been made or if, in fact, Sully had needlessly put the life of passengers and crew in jeopardy. The movie spends most of its time with Sully as he anguishes over his choice. Although he made history with the landing and there were no casualties, it would still mean a disgraceful end to his career if it was proven he could have reached a runway safely. And as the film goes on, the mounting evidence appears to point to just such a conclusion.
Hanks gives another solid performance as a man faced with the tormenting possibility that one bad decision could bring an inglorious end to a spotless career. The actor has become so reliable in these kinds of heroic everyman roles that it’s easy to take for granted just how good he really is. But in a way that’s fitting for the story being told. Sully is full of characters, from the flight crew to the first responders to the commercial ferrymen who aided in the rescue, who all simply do their jobs like they’re supposed to. It’s only when the most extreme of situations arise that we realize just how competent they all are.
Appropriately, the people telling the story of Sully come across as no different. Along with Hanks, the likes of Aaron Eckhart and Laura Linney give what could at best be described as journeymen performances, and yet at each key moment, they deliver exactly what the story needs on an emotional level. Clint Eastwood, as always, provides direction that never calls attention to itself, yet never fails to service the narrative. The film is entirely workmanlike, but ends up being satisfying and enjoyable regardless. Perhaps it’s just summer blockbuster burnout, or maybe it’s just good old reliable Tom Hanks, but for whatever reason, Sully ends up being a brisk 96 minutes of solid, straight-forward storytelling. Nothing flashy, but it gets the job done.