Many actors come to own the roles they play so completely that once you see them, you can’t imagine anyone else in the part. Tom Hanks plays roles in which you can’t imagine anyone else even before you see him: Capt. Richard Phillips, Walt Disney, James B. Donovan (Bridge of Spies) and now Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the hero pilot of the January 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson.”

Seven years ago, when the white-headed, mustachioed pilot’s self-deprecating but calmly assured bearing under the sudden barrage of media attention made him an instantly beloved national hero, if you had asked me who could play Sully in the inevitable movie version, I would have said “Tom Hanks, in 10 years.” Actually, the two men are less than seven years apart, making Hanks exactly the right age in Sully.

Like Jimmy Stewart, Hanks has long been celebrated for what people call his “everyman” persona — a misleading term belying the extraordinary grace under pressure of the real-life figures he plays in Apollo 13, Captain Phillips, Bridge of Spies and now Sully.

What we mean by this term, at least as regards these films, is that Hanks plays unassuming men of character and ability who have no particular aspirations of heroism, but who respond to unexpected crises as outstandingly as we would all like to think we would — and who, as we see most clearly in Sully, continue to be the same people after the crisis that they were before.

This doesn’t mean Sully suffers no self-doubt or trauma. Director Clint Eastwood is interested in how characters, particularly men, cope with celebrity or notoriety and their shadow of their own defining deeds; the closest parallel is Flags of Our Fathers, but similar thematic material can be found in Unforgiven, Gran Torino, American Sniper and even Jersey Boys.

Was ditching US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson really the right move? Was there no possibility of making it back to LaGuardia, or perhaps turning west to New Jersey and making for Teterboro or Newark?

Forty years of experience as a pilot gives Sully great confidence that he did the only thing possible — but he can’t stop replaying the scenario in his mind, darkly reflecting on other ways it could have ended. At times he seems overwhelmed, the way anyone might be in the cockpit of an Airbus A320-214 at 3,000 feet with both engines dead from a strike with a formation of Canada geese, when Sully wasn’t. Overwhelmed, I mean.

Meanwhile, when all of us were watching Sully lionized on CBS with Katie Couric and David Letterman, meeting with the president and president-elect, attending the inauguration, and so forth, investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board were asking the same question about Sully’s call with much less confidence regarding the answer.

Writer Todd Komarnicki effectively balances Sully’s professional certitude with mounting doubt, as flight data and simulations suggest that Sully had other options. A nonlinear story structure blending standard flashbacks with dream (or daydream) sequences and a review of cockpit audio keeps the crucial 208-second event present in what is mostly a story of aftermath.

The film is attentive to the iconic power of that event, both in itself and in connection with the last time the world watched as an airliner went down against the New York skyline. Images openly evocative of Sept. 11, 2001, are deployed, then subverted — a move that is both bold and perhaps healing for a film opening on the 15th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in history.

And while Sully struggles with PTSD and reservations about his sudden celebrity, to others he is simply a hero, a reality he must learn to accept in stride. There’s a certain humor here: Sometimes he goes unrecognized (a driver shouts angrily at him as he steps carelessly into the road while jogging); other times he is spontaneously hugged or kissed by strangers. Once he is even offered a cocktail that was literally named after him. 

While taking creative license in how adversarial NTSB hearings were and how dramatically key revelations are made, the investigators aren’t turned into mustache-twirling villains. Actually, this is one picture in which the mustaches are worn by the good guys, including Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles and goateed Jeremy Luke as New York Waterway ferry captain Vince Lombardi.

While Hanks’ performance anchors the film, Eckhart’s Skiles energizes every scene he’s in in a way that supports rather than competes with Hanks, just as Skiles backs Sully to the hilt.

Sully, likewise, refuses to take sole credit for the felicitous outcome of the crash landing: In addition to Skiles, he credits the flight attendants (Jane Gabbert, Ann Cusack and Molly Hagan), the flight’s 150 passengers themselves and the New York Waterway ferry captains and first responders who collected every one of those 155 people off the plane’s wings or inflatable slides and brought them safely to New York or New Jersey.

It’s a gripping human story, well served by the filmmakers, with a few caveats. Among these, Laura Linney as Lorrie Sullenberger is saddled with the familiar empathic but rather thankless task of worrying about her husband from the opposite coast and dealing with the media camped on her doorstep.

Over the course of the film, the crisis puts a strain on the Sullenbergers’ relationship (in more than one phone call Lorrie tells Sully she loves him, and for a while he doesn’t reciprocate). Over and over, Lorrie asks Sully when he’s coming home.

Yet the film seems to rush to a close, ending on an oddly jocular note and neglecting to return to Lorrie with some closure to her arc — if not an actual reunion, at least via a phone call assuring her that he’s finally on his way home. It’s an unfortunately placed misstep for a film that makes few others.

Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films.
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.

Follow him on Twitter.

Caveat Spectator: Disaster imagery; some cursing and crude language. Teens and up.