Nearly everyone knows about US Airways Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his “Miracle on the Hudson.” On Jan. 15, 2009, Sully landed his Airbus 320 in New York City’s Hudson River after a flock of birds disabled both engines; all 155 people — or “souls” as Sully calls them — aboard survived. Sully refused to leave his aircraft until all passengers and crew had disembarked. Who better to play this true hero, this cool-under-pressure John Wayne of the skies, than tried-and-true everyman Tom Hanks? Like his past unassuming-hero roles, Hanks is born to play Sully. From the snow-white hair, matching moustache and humble demeanor, Hanks embodies his character. And Clint Eastwood, no stranger to making movies about heroic men, a la “American Sniper,” is an equally perfect fit in the director’s chair. I foresee Oscar nominations for both men.

At 86, Eastwood has still got it. The film takes flight from the moment it opens to reveal dramatic shots of a distressed aircraft plunging amidst the Manhattan skyline, leaving a thick trail of gray smoke behind. It’s stunning to see, but I doubt “Sully” will ever be an in-flight offering on any airline. Catch it in theaters instead.

In a compact 91 minutes, Eastwood — working from a screenplay by Todd Komarnicki (“Perfect Stranger”) based on Sully’s memoir, “Highest Duty” — focuses less on the extraordinary “forced-water landing” and more on the ensuing federal investigation and the post-traumatic stress suffered by Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (a terrific Aaron Eckhart) after they’re grudgingly thrust into the media spotlight.

Eastwood quickly reaches cruising altitude, as he effectively oscillates between present day and flashbacks to the pinpoint landing. He shows the events from the perspectives of not just Sully, but also the passengers, first responders, and an air traffic controller. His storytelling technique infuses loads of humanity into what could have been a vanilla re-enactment. Even though we see the landing multiple times, it’s done from the perspective of various characters. We might know the happy outcome from the get-go, but we still “brace for impact.” That’s a credit to Eastwood — and his excellent cast, which also includes Laura Linney as Sully’s wife. She doesn’t really have much to do, but that’s just a minor quibble in a movie that held me riveted and breathless. It’s tense, but not without moments of welcome levity. Like the drink a city bar calls the Sully — Grey Goose with a splash of water.

Wrapped around the fateful day is the National Transportation Safety Board’s “human performance investigation” in which officials (Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan) question the decisions of Sully and Skiles, criticize their actions and ask such personal questions such as: “When was your last drink?” or, “Are you having problems at home?” The blowback is intense, with a lot at stake, like jobs, pensions, reputations, insurance pay outs. No one seems to care that Sully and Skiles have frayed nerves and can’t sleep. The big question is why the pilots didn’t try to make it back to LaGuardia or attempt to land at nearby Teterboro? Multiple computer simulations indicate the aircraft could have landed safely at either airport. As Sully points out, the investigators “take all the humanity out of the cockpit.” And Eastwood and Hanks put all the pathos back in. They are the wind beneath “Sully’s” wings.

— Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“Sully”
Cast includes Tom Hanks, Laura Linney, Aaron Eckhart, Sam Huntington, Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn.
(PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language.)
Grade: A-