Take Tom Hanks, put him together with Clint Eastwood, then add in a well known true story with a miraculously happy ending — the safe landing of a passenger airliner in the Hudson River. The natural expectation is for a big Hollywood blockbuster movie.

“Sully,” the name of the film, and the nickname of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, should make a bunch of money, but it’s far from being a “big Hollywood film.” There’s a terrific story, one that made newspaper headlines all over the world, and strong visual effects. But the film is more of an intimate look at Sully and the people around him, and what he and they went through during and after the event.

It opens with Sully (Hanks), in the cockpit of US Airways #1549, on January 15, 2009, calmly saying into a microphone: “Mayday. We’ve lost both engines.” Then the film erupts into panic as the plane goes down, not in the Hudson, but right in the middle of Manhattan.

It’s a dream, a bad one, suffered by an emotionally drained Sully as he tries keep his head together in a New York hotel room, just hours after the landing.

Eastwood soon jumps to the first of many “evaluations” of Sully and his First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) with members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a small meeting room. It’s here that the film starts building the drama. The no-nonsense NTSB suits pretty much harangue the men who are being evaluated, coming across as if they want to end their careers. But there’s Sully, staying firm but keeping his cool, saying that it was not — using their words — a “crash” but a “forced water landing.” He explains that the incident was caused by multiple bird strikes, by Canada geese that flew into and disabled the engines, and that there was no time, on his part “for calculation. I eyeballed it. It was the best chance we had.”

The film follows the struggles of this talented, low-key man who, by keeping his wits and doing his job, became a hero, but now has to face bureaucratic backlash, unwanted fame, and the relentless push of invasive reporters, who congregate around him outside his New York hotel, and take root on the lawn of his suburban home, where his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and kids hide inside.

Nightmares are soon joined by horrific waking dreams. But they’re tempered by a script that features some great scenes of just talking. When Sully and his equally shaken first officer are unable to sleep, they have a long late-night chat on the streets of New York; when Sully needs some comfort, he calls Lorraine, so both can share their concerns.

The film soon heads off to different levels of drama. It flashes back to the airport on the day of the flight, tracking Sully’s moves and eavesdropping on conversations between passengers who expect nothing extraordinary. A smooth takeoff leads to Sully looking out a window and saying, “Nice view of the Hudson,” then moments later stiffening as a flock of Canada geese hit his engines, and he says one word: “Birds.” Quiet panic sets in at the control tower, where one man, realizing what might happen, says, “People don’t survive water landings.” In the plane’s cabin, the panic is more apparent, but the flight crew members do their jobs. They strap in, then shout, in unison, to passengers, “Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down!”

It’s frightening and exciting, but never overwhelmingly so. Though there’s a lot going on, and the scenes of the landing and the water rescue are kept short due to constant quick edits, the film somehow never feels busy. Nice job in that area by Eastwood and his editor Blu Murray.

This impression remains throughout the accompanying NTSB public courtroom hearing, where Hanks shows what portraying a dignified character in a dignified manner is all about, and some of the film’s best action sequences are not only spoken of but are played out in flashback.

“Sully” has a streamlined running time of 96 minutes, every one of which is perfectly used to show that there’s a lot more to the story than just knowing how it ended.

— Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

“Sully”
Written by Todd Komamicki; directed by Clint Eastwood
With Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Rated PG-13