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How do you construct a compelling film about a recent news story that everybody already knows?


Spoiler alert: The plane lands safely.

Clint Eastwood’s new film, Sully, suggests an intriguing question: How do you construct a compelling film about a recent news story that everybody already knows?

In this case, the event is 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson,” when Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed a disabled plane on New York City’s Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. The entire drama — from take-off at LaGuardia to rescue by ferry boats — took less than 30 minutes in real time.

For one, you parcel out the high drama. Eastwood begins his film with a harrowing flight scene that is revealed to be a nightmare. Then we catch up with Sully (Tom Hanks) in the immediate days after the crash … er … forced water landing. Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), who are understandably rattled, are now the subjects of a federal investigation: Could the plane have landed at a nearby airport?

Eastwood uses the investigation into Sully’s possible culpability and its assorted administrative and aeronautical minutiae to gin up some suspense, and act as a counter to what we do know: This guy is a hero who saved 155 people! You can feel Eastwood quietly doubling down on a preferred archetype: Never mind what the rules say, a man acts from his gut.

There is also plenty of padding, whether it’s a couple of passengers, a round-robin of media interviews or calls home to Sully’s family in California. (Laura Linney has the thankless role of “supportive wife on the phone.”) We also get two brief flashbacks to Sully’s past that mostly show: Hey, the guy loved to fly and was good at it.

But in the middle of film is an expert reconstruction of the compromised flight — from the very professional not-quite-panic in the cockpit after losing both engines to flight attendants screaming “Brace! Brace!” at passengers only a minute or two into their flight. Then the evacuation as water pours in, life vests floating away … it is all surprisingly nerve-wracking despite the known outcome.

Ultimately, the film works because this is a role — a decent, resourceful guy — tailor-made for Hanks, who without complaint, shoulders Sully through its less-interesting parts. And it works because even a simulated plane crash that we vicariously survive always touches wherever we bury that fear in our own souls. And it works because a million Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t have come up with a better, more uplifting story than what actually happened. “Been a while since New York had news this good,” says somebody as the rescued clamber onto the docks. An amazing real-life story simply sells itself.

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