Arts

Flight the power: Tom Hanks plays miracle pilot Sully

Tom Hanks plays a hero pilot in Sully, the true story of a jetliner's miraculous fatality-free emergency landing in New York's Hudson River. David Roy watched this Clint Eastwood-directed dramatisation of real headline-grabbing events

Tom Hanks plays Captain Chesley Sullenberger in Sully

IT'S hard to craft a compelling movie from a well-known true story with a happy ending, but Clint Eastwood does his best with Sully: Miracle on The Hudson, a dramatisation of the astounding water landing pulled off by US Airways pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) just minutes after taking off from New York's LaGuardia airport back in January 2009 with 148 passengers on-board – all of whom have lived to see their extraordinary experience immortalised on the big screen.

"This wasn't a crash – it was a forced water landing", Sully reminds air-crash investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as it becomes clear that they are going to try and pin the dramatic emergency splashdown on his pilot error.

This somewhat factually inaccurate set-up is central to the dramatic thrust of the picture, which pits Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (an impressively moustachioed Aaron Eckhart) against a panel of near comically obtuse NTSB-ers out to ruin the pair's reputations in the wake of the unprecedented bird-strike induced double engine failure.

"Forty years in the air and all I'm going to be remembered for is 208 seconds," laments Sully in the wake of their first sit-down with these cartoonish 'villains' who maintain that he could have safely piloted the plane back to the airport.

It's a snappy line which reflects the unabashedly melodramatic tone of a film that would very much be TV movie fodder were it not for its top-drawer casting and impressive CGI rendering of Flight 1549's headline-grabbing plunge and the subsequent water-bound rescue operation.

Since Captain Sullenberg and co were barely in the air for five minutes, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (who adapted from Sullenberg's autobiography) can't rely on in-flight action to carry their film – though they do make the most of it by showing us the plane's terrifying, palm sweat-inducing descent into the icy Hudson River several times.

Beyond this, the film highlights the paradox of Sullenberg's elevation to national hero status even as he's under investigation by the NTSB: amid all the back-slapping and spontaneous hugs from strangers, we see him struck by stress-related sleeplessness and increasingly frequent moments of anguished self-doubt – including recurring nightmares in which the pilot relives his experience with the plane crashing into downtown Manhattan, 9/11-style.

Its biggest downfalls are in snippets of 'backstory' for some of the passengers which are evocative of a chucklesomely cheesy Airport-style 1970s disaster film, and Laura Linney literally phoning in her performance as a fretful Mrs Sullenberg under siege from the press at the possibly financially imperilled family home in San Francisco.

However, even under the stress of such narrative turbulence, Sully remains an enjoyable, feel-good watch thanks to the sheer screen presence of Tom Hanks, America's Most Likeable Actor.

In the wake of Apollo 13, Charlie Wilson's War, Captain Phillips and his latest feature, Hanks is surely now the first-choice performer of any man caught up in newsworthy events when it comes to casting the movie adaptation of their life.

Kitted out with Sullenberg's grandfatherly white hair and matching pilot's 'tache, he plays the title character as the kind of amiable, cool-under pressure, gut-feeling-over-proper-procedure fella you'd want to find in charge of any potentially life-threatening situation involving yourself or a loved one.

However, we don't really get to know the veteran flyer turned reluctant hero (now retired and working as an air crash expert for US TV) beyond his professionalism and the dignified manner in which he conducts himself during the stressful inquisition.

Still, Hanks and Eckhart make a good on-screen team and the latter gets the pleasure of delivering the film's best/cheesiest line, saved until the very end of Sully's padded-out 90 minute running time.

It might not quite be a miracle of movie making, but with the ever-dependable Captain Hanks at the controls, Eastwood has at least done justice to his titular subject and his incredible, life-saving aeronautical feat.

SULLY: MIRACLE ON THE HUDSON (12A, 94 mins) Thriller/Action/Romance. Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Mike O'Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan, Patch Darragh, Vince Lombardi. Director: Clint Eastwood

RATING: TWO STARS

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