‘Sully,’ starring Tom Hanks as a heroic pilot, celebrates quiet competence

(L-r) Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles and Tom Hanks as Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger in "Sully." CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures

After a summer of bombast and belly-flops, the fall season gets off to a refreshingly sure-footed start with “Sully,” a four-square, upstanding, rock-solid example of filmmaking at it most direct and honestly affecting.

Tom Hanks plays Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the U.S. Airways pilot who landed a plane bound from LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte on the Hudson River in 2009, after his craft was struck by a flock of Canada geese. But this is no simplistic tale of heroism and crack timing – although they’re in there.

Instead, “Sully,” which Clint Eastwood directed from a script by Todd Komarnicki, introduces viewers to a man wracked by second thoughts and nightmare visions of what could have happened had he made the wrong decision. What’s more, he’s not the only one with doubts: The film’s framing device is an investigation held by the National Transportation Safety Board, whose extensive simulations and computer algorithms suggested that Sullenberger probably had the engine power and time to make a safe landing back at LaGuardia, or in New Jersey.

For audiences whose image of Sullenberger is the paragon of modesty and skill aw-shucks-ing it through interviews with Katie Couric and David Letterman, this part of his story will come as a revelation, and an infuriating one at that: It seems impossible that anyone could second-guess a pilot whose 40-year career was so exemplary that he was known in the field as a safety expert. This alternative glimpse, as well as Eastwood’s graceful staging of Sully’s darkest what-if fantasies, as well as the landing itself, makes “Sully” thoroughly engrossing and exciting to watch, even though viewers know the outcome.

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Sporting a head of cropped white hair and a modest mustache, his face a sallow mask of discomfort with sudden fame and attention, Hanks is the perfect actor to play Sullenberger, whose reserve and low-key assuredness may remind the audience of the title character the actor played a few years ago in “Captain Phillips.” There are laughs to be had in “Sully,” especially in the banter between Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles, played with bristling, barely contained energy by Aaron Eckhart. But there’s nothing gratuitously ingratiating in a movie that instead goes to great pains to adopt the terse, economical work ethic of its protagonist. (Sully joins Sam Shepard’s Chuck Yeager and Ed Harris’ John Glenn in the pantheon of cineatic air heroes : taciturn, inherently trustworthy men of action, not showboating.)

Beautifully filmed in and around a wintry Manhattan, and featuring spectacular sequences re-creating that iconic landing and rescue on Jan. 15, “Sully” is also suffused with a particularly mournful sense of poignancy; the sight of a plane coming so perilously close to the buildings along the Upper West Side can’t help but conjure the city’s most grievous day eight years earlier, an observation made late in the film by one of Sully’s colleagues. (New York deserves a happy ending, he tells him, especially one involving planes.)

It’s fitting that “Sully” is arriving in theaters on the 15th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, a date that hovers around the proceedings like a tender, ghostly presence. Eastwood and his team not only pay fitting homage to Sullenberger, but to the squads of first responders who did their jobs so heroically on both days.

“Sully” is a classy, enormously satisfying ode to simple competence. To paraphrase the title character, it’s just a movie doing its job. And amen to that.

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Three and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains scenes of peril and brief strong language. 95 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.