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Hanks and Eastwood prove the power of excellence in ‘Sully’

If you insist, you can reduce the story of “Sully” to numbers. The legendary event took 208 seconds. That’s how long it took Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger to realize that an unforeseeable mid-air collision with a flock of geese had crippled both engines of his A320 Airbus and forced him to land U.S. Air Flight 1549 in the Hudson River.

So he did, thereby saving 155 lives – everyone aboard the plane at the time. It took only 24 minutes in 2009 for the first responders in New York City – who had been tested before in a way no one will ever forget – to rescue everyone aboard and ensure their survival.

Undoubtedly, there’s a dollar figure attached to insurance payments and economic impact on U.S. Air but we’re never going to know that down to the penny – not the way we know everything else.

“Sully” the movie is 96 minutes long. It’s tight, involving and – except for the end – dramatic. But the big number in the movie, really, is 86. That’s the age of its director Clint Eastwood, the legendary actor/director who hereby becomes the oldest prolific working mainstream filmmaker in American history.

“Sully” is pure Clint along with the surefire charisma of its story and star (Tom Hanks). You can draw a straight line from Clint to everything good about the film – a publicly acclaimed hero who rejects being thought a hero (see “Flags of Our Fathers”), the struggles of a hero not to be weighed down by his handling of a calamity unique in American history, no matter how successful it had been.

Among the unexpected pleasures of “Sully” is the structure of the film. A lesser film would have opened with the heart-stopping event,slam-bang, and then gone into the National Transportation Safety Board hearing to decide what happened and ascertain blame.

Not this one. You know all about the secret campaign to impugn Sully officially before you ever see what happened in the film. Because he’s played by Hanks – and because he’s been a certifiable American hero since it happened – you know how it’s going to turn out. Still, it is impressive to watch this no-nonsense director take you dramatically through discussions full of jargon and tech talk in which the lives and reputations of very good and dedicated people are at stake underneath it all.

The NTSB is said to be less than pleased with Clint’s mythologizing but it’s a good movie – foursquare, to be sure, but moving. Old-fashioned in a way, even TV-sized in some of the early scenes.

The landing on the Hudson comes in the middle. And then again a couple of times at the end. Everyone who has ever flown in an airplane will feel this film in their gut. It is brilliantly put together but then that is the meat of Eastwood’s career and still is.

Eastwood, like a career pilot, has his team full of consummate professionals (notably longtime cinematographer Tom Stern) to keep turning out films whose action scenes are effortlessly masterful. (And sometimes awe-inspiring in their effects. See “Hereafter.” Ignore the politics of “American Sniper” and just look at the action film-making.)

It is no accident that the whole point of this movie is the existence of team heroism. Underneath that, there is the conveyance of the resilience of New York City after suffering history-changing trauma that was unique (and we pray stays that way). If ever there were a guy acclaimed a hero for clockwork teamwork, it’s Eastwood.

But then without Sully in this story, who knows what would have happened? Without Eastwood, no one could have been so sure the movie would have turned out as convincing as it did.

Hanks as Sully and Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles are no small part of it. For that it helps to have one of his era’s virtuoso actors in the lead role. (See Hanks in the finale of “Captain Phillips.”) Most of “Sully” asks an actor to convey the insecurities of a man’s inner life. For that, Hanks is as professional as film actors get.

It wasn’t so long ago that Eastwood – in life – was having trouble putting a foot right after moving so many people in “Million Dollar Baby.” His “empty chair” debate at the 2012 Republican National Convention was universally accounted a self-indulgent mistake from every political side. His consent to appear in his ex-wife’s reality TV series won him no respect anywhere – and more than a little scorn.

No more. “Sully” is a reminder about the miracle that consummate professionals can be in the world. And its filmmaker is the oldest and most prolific exemplary professional our movies have had in the modern era.

Clint would be the first to tell you that all talk about “miracles” is hype and baloney. A lifelong dedication to film excellence is good enough.


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