By Kirby Davis, Staff Writer

No one plays an endearing American hero in distress quite like Tom Hanks.

This time around he’s the titular white-haired, distinctively mustached pilot who landed an Airbus on the Hudson River in January 2009, saving each of the 155 lives on board.

Based on Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s memoir “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” the film delves into the consequences — psychological and legal — of this event.

We know what happens. “Sully” is not effectively tense and deeply unsettling because of suspense — the pretense of its infamous plane landing (Sully is adamant that no one refer to it as a “crash”) is not enough to generate real terror. We know how it ends — all its passengers are rescued by the NYPD, hypothermic but alive. An investigation committee determines that birds blew out both engines and dispels any doubt directed at Sully’s piloting skills.

“Sully’s” power lies in the fact that it’s grounded in reality — this is not Tom Cruise hitching a ride on the wing of a military jet in “Mission: Impossible,” or Samuel L. Jackson denouncing the presence of snakes on an aircraft or Brad Pitt sauntering out of a zombie-infested plane wreck in “World War Z.”

This film depicts 155 real people living everyone’s worst, unthinkable nightmare. Not only is the passengers’ terror palpable, but so is Sully’s as he suffers from debilitating flashbacks of the incident.

He copes by running, but he can’t escape the fact that he landed an Airbus in the Hudson River and an investigation committee doesn’t believe he did so with the intentions of saving everyone on board. The airline’s insurance company is not pleased with the loss of their plane, and attempts to prove that Sully had other options than a forced water landing.

Most importantly “Sully” serves as a stark reminder, so close to the fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, that even airplanes in what are supposed to be the most mundane of circumstances can be terrifying. 9/11 is referenced only once, by an unnamed side character, and not outright, but this adds to the general, subtle disquiet haunting the film.

The most gripping part of “Sully” strikes during one of its drawn-out flashback sequences, but it’s not the depiction of the crash itself. The most chilling, unnerving moments are when various New Yorkers watch Flight 1549 careen perilously close to their city before ultimately reaching the surface of the Hudson. You can imagine what they’re thinking.

“The pleasure of working with someone who’s an actor is they don’t waste time with stuff that doesn’t matter,” Hanks told the Los Angeles Times of director Clint Eastwood, who experienced a plane water landing himself during his time in the military in the 1950s.

I think this is what elevates “Sully” from a monotonous retelling of that water landing in 2009. Of course, the talent helps — Aaron Eckhart is a steady, low-key presence as First Officer Jeff Skiles (maybe overshadowed by his unseemly mustache.) Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan are both dubious and reluctantly sympathetic while heading the investigation into Sully’s actions. And Laura Linney plays his frazzled wife.

“Sully” isn’t much different from last year’s Hanks-Spielberg collaboration, “Bridge of Spies.” Both are thrillers as introspective as they are intense, with wintry atmospheres and Hanks running the show as a real-life American hero.

But here’s what makes “Sully” better — “Bridge of Spies” takes too much time to tell the story of lawyer James B. Donovan, who negotiated the safe exchange of an imprisoned Soviet spy for two Americans in 1962. It’s beautifully shot but superfluous, and its action drags.

“Sully” is not excessive — its 96-minute runtime makes it the shortest film Eastwood has ever directed, and this saves it from becoming a drawn-out, unnecessary reiteration. Part of its intrigue also lies in its relevance — this all occurred merely seven years ago.

It depicts the “miracle on the Hudson” thoughtfully but deliberately, with little room for unnecessary side stories or embellishments. It offers compelling insight into te event, but nearly everything in the film is still laid out clearly, concisely and earnestly.

Just like Sully maintains he did on January 15, 2009, this film does its job.

4/5 Stars