The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the term “hero worship” as both “the veneration of a hero” or “the foolish or excessive adulation for an individual.”  Within those two descriptors, you find the positive action of “veneration,” meaning great respect and reverence, and the negative connotations of “foolish” and “excessive.”  Films based on real-life heroes (enjoy an IMDb poll of the voted best) employ steep dramatic license and theatrics that can often veer in the excessive negative direction and lose sight of the necessary reverence.  

Celebrated director Clint Eastwood is no stranger to biopics based on historical figures (“Bird,” “Changeling,” Invictus,” “J. Edgar,” “American Sniper"), making him an ardent practitioner of hero worship.  Because the 86-year-old, four-time Oscar winner classically directs with a soft hand and a comely tone, his brand of adoration consistently lands on the veneration half of the definition.  Combining forces for the first time with another hero worship professional in All-American leading man Tom Hanks on “Sully,” you have double the cinematic potential of cherished devotion.  Their recounting of the miraculous circumstances of 2009’s US Airways Flight 1549 piloted by Chelsey Sullenberger is always safe, always humble, and always stoic.

The build-up, circumstances, and aftermath of that January 15, 2009 morning are told in segmented and repeated flashbacks as Captain Sullenberger (Hanks) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhardt) are sequestered to a downtown New York City hotel in the days that followed.  The bright side of their containment consists of the mountainous media requests for interviews and appearances ranging from hamming it up with David Letterman to getting personal with Katie Couric.  Those moments of appreciated reverie break up the behind-closed-doors intensity of the exhaustive NTSB and insurance inquiry into the accident orchestrated by a trio of lead investigators (Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, and Anna Gunn).

Hanks, in his usual understated and enduring fashion, portrays a Chelsea Sullenberger that is feeling the immediate effects of post-traumatic stress.  As experienced as he may be and praised for his cool-headedness, Sully can still be haunted by the what ifs and the woulda-coulda-shoulda variables of those 208 seconds that led to landing an Airbus 320 jet on the cold Hudson River.  He knows that single flight will inevitably define, but could also end, his career and legacy short of retirement.  The overwhelming attention coming from his newly surreal status as a national hero adds to his own internal questions grilling his conscience as hard as those of the NTSB inquiry, especially when every computer simulation shows that Sully could have gotten the airliner back to the runway instead of ditching in the river.

From a technical perspective, Eastwood crafts a compelling landscape for the history in question to play out.  While sometimes repetitive, the flashbacks into the flight are highly detailed, commonly including eyewitness perspectives from the periphery of people touched by the incident, spanning from passengers and flight attendants to the fast-acting ferry boats nearby and even the nerve-wracking helplessness of air traffic control watching the events transpire on a radar screen.  The recreations have enough harrowing quality to bring you to the edge of your seat, clutch that armrest, and feel the beat of your throbbing arteries and internal fears.  When those moments subside, jazz aficionado Eastwood’s own lovely composition of a musical theme, expanded on and performed by pianist Christian Jacob and The Tierney Sutton Band, soothes the stress.

The heroism of that 2009 morning is fitting for a celebratory movie the general public can wrap its arms around.  Screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (of the forgettable “Perfect Stranger”) adapts a portion of Sullenberger’s memoirs, “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” in an efficient and even-keeled way.  Eastwood’s attention to this heroic figure is already quite the gesture, but there’s no one better than Hanks to embroider such a film with his towering presence.  People will talk about his composure and reactions in the hot seat during the flashbacks, but his best sequence of performance comes in the aftermath as the patient leader who leaves last and then has to contain his nerves awaiting the count of survivors, with the mounting guilt that he could have casualties on his watch and by his hand.  He carries that weight with an unflappable resolve worth appreciating.  

Can a hero worship film be too safe and too stoic?  Can respectful come off as too slight and too dull?  All are indeed possible.  Call this “Flight Lite” by comparison to the brazenly bold, and ultimately superior, Robert Zemeckis/Denzel Washington pairing from 2012.  That film was fiction and this one is contained by fact, putting it already on a different tier.  A more apt comparison of a similar glossy history lesson would be “Bridge of Spies” from last year, also with a confident Hanks.  Both played it safe, but “Sully” provides more suspense with its genuflection than Spielberg’s rote film.

A film like “Sully” doesn’t need to step out of the box, even if there is room to explore.  There is noticeable space for more depth, punch, and opportunities to give talent like Laura Linney more to do than the stock suffering spouse-at-home on the end of a telephone.  However, it is hard to argue with the loosening and indulging longer in any of tightly composed 96 minutes that exist.  It’s actually pleasant to see a historical drama keep it under 150 minutes for a change.  “Sully” solely needs to be sturdy and steady, and steady is what you get.

LESSON #1: THE LOGISTICS BEHIND BEHIND ACTS OF HEROISM-- People always celebrate the leaders first in acts of heroism, but behind those public idols are dozens of other essential roles and supporting contingencies that enable the success of an accident like Flight 1549.  The rescue of those passengers was a group effort of first responders and sound procedures, all factors out of a hero’s control that have to align and happen correctly in an emergency circumstance.

LESSON #2: THE PSYCHE BEHIND ACTS OF HEROISM-- Chelsea Sullenberger describes the pilot role as a creature of control, akin to the “I’ve done this a thousand times” mantra because it holds skillfully true.  His trained instincts and vast knowledge funnel down to simply “fly the plane.”  When the unprecedented occurs, focus, reaction time, displacement of panic, and effective judgment can outperform the decision-making found in the proverbial book of troubleshooting.  All of that is the mental side of such heroism.

LESSON #3: THE QUALITY OF STOICISM-- Thanks to Tom Hanks, the hero worship of “Sully” points a beacon at the quality of stocism found in Chelsea Sullenberger.  Through the unthinkable and a life-or-death moment with innocent lives on the line, the man found endurance, patience, and fortitude in a place where others would collapse.  He and this story deserves the movie hero treatment.