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Sully movie review: Tom Hanks the right man for the job

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tom Hanks, right, and Aaron Eckhart in a scene from "Sully."

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Tom Hanks, right, and Aaron Eckhart in a scene from "Sully."

Sully

* * * * (A)

Directed By Clint Eastwood

Starring Tom Hanks, Anna Gunn, Laura Linney, Aaron Eckhart

Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Biography, Drama, 96 minutes

Everyone’s life contains a few defining moments. For Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, a commercial airline pilot, one such moment occurred on a bitterly cold January afternoon in 2009.

After a routine takeoff from New York City’s La Guardia Airport, his flight, US Airways 1549, was engulfed by a large flock of Canada geese. The birds thudded against the craft’s aluminum body, splattered on its windshield, and were sucked inside its engines. A few donks and fffffts later, both engines lost power and thrust.

We know Sully lived to tell the tale because the incident is investigated, poked and sniffed by a displeased NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board).

In the days following the crash, or in Sully’s parlance, “the forced landing of my jet,” NTSB members repeatedly declared that Sully (as everyone calls him), should have followed protocol to land his crippled craft back at La Guardia, or at New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport on the other side of the Hudson. Despite being given both runway options, Sully, reckoning his airship lacked the altitude for these maneuvers, chose to land on the Hudson river.

The less you know about the well-publicized incident going in, the more exciting the film will be. But for the many who remember, the story nevertheless remains tense and sufficiently gripping to white-knuckle their armrests.

Sully, as portrayed by Tom Hanks with a crop of white hair and a well-groomed mustache, is the epitome of decency. His blue eyes first flash concern then understanding about the NTSB’s process of analyzing his every move to the nth degree.

He grasps the realities of being a hero to his surviving passengers, to the masses of news followers, and to his supportive copilot Jeff Skiles (a restrained Aaron Eckhart), while being an irritant to the industry, and a worry for his wife (Laura Linney).

He was a pilot trying to do the best job he can to convey his reasons for doing what he did. Yet he secretly wonders, Was it enough? Was I reckless?

Before we are finally shown the entire crash sequence approximately one hour in, the film delivers bits and pieces via simulation, and through Sully’s nightmares.

During the day, Sully and Stiles are grilled by an NTSB panel reminiscent of the pundits holding forth on cable news shows. They aren’t cruel. They are however, true believers in their own theories.

A mainly straightforward timeline drifts back to the accident on several occasions. Since we visit Sully’s mind, at times we struggle to get our bearings, provided by director Clint Eastwood’s sturdy understanding of the viewer’s experience.

He isn’t trying to fool us, he’s helping Sully to share the emotional side of an experience we can only hope never to have. As Sully contemplates the very real possibility of ending his 40-year-career without pension or benefits — should he be found guilty of wrongdoing — he also formulates a plan to prove he chose the only viable option. That plan leads to scenes as breathtaking as those of the crash itself.

Wound tightly as the story will permit, Eastwood and Hanks fire a warning shot over the bow of all Oscar contenders. Sully flies! Others best grow wings.