If we want to be brutally honest about it, Sully never really does quite get around to making the case that the story it's telling needed to be told. It tells the story, to be fair, very well; in an era when highly proficient movie storytelling for middle-class adult audiences was more common, this would seem unexceptional but for how very good it is, with a couple of world-class performances and some very fine, taut directing by Clint Eastwood (whose career in the last decade has, anyway, largely been given to making highly proficient movies for middle-class adults, and I absolutely do mean that as a compliment). In a world where such a thing is a rare, it's kind of hard to see why Sully, of all things, managed to snag its position as the official kick-off to the 2016 Oscar season. It is good - even very good, if you're at all sympathetic to the whole middle-class adult thing - but it's weirdly smallish. I could just be responding to its astonishingly abrupt ending that feels at least one scene too short and almost deliberately trivialises everything that went before, I don't know.

The film is the true story of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who became a bona-fide Great American Hero on 15 January, 2009, when he managed to land a crashing plane on the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey, saving every one of the 155 human lives aboard. He is played, naturally enough, by that walking, talking, breathing icon of Americana, Tom Hanks, though this is very much the sober-minded, visibly strained Hanks of Captain Phillips, not the lovable teddy bear Hanks of yore. I suppose that's the only Hanks that Eastwood would have ever been likely to work with. The performance that results - and to an inordinately high degree, the performance is the movie - is somewhere between Richard Phillips in that film and Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle in Eastwood's last film, American Sniper: a crisp professional so attuned to correct procedure that he's able to bury his emotional response to stress until after the fact, at which point he turns into a miserable, confused bundle of raw nerves, obsessively rehashing his past actions in his head. Of all the ways this project could have gone, transforming Sully into a quietly upset man filled with joyless anxiety at the thought of being made a heroic figure is surely the best: it's a far cry from the "aw shucks, I'm just a fella" tone would have happened if this were, say, a James Stewart vehicle in the 1940s - or a Tom Hanks vehicle in the 1990s - and if it's not quite the full-throated PTSD drama that American Sniper was, or that its first half keeps threatening to turn into, it's still an impressive sober and reserved character study that only briefly wears the clothes of a hagiography (like American Sniper, it ends with real-world footage after the events of the movie are over in celebration of the protagonist, and like American Sniper, that's very much the worst part of the whole feature).

Todd Komarnicki's screenplay, adapted by Sullenberg's memoir Highest Duty, manages to have some unexpectedly cunning ideas about how to structure a story which has very few moving parts: basically, Sully and Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) pilot US Airways Flight 1549 off the ground at LaGuardia Airport en route to Charlotte, NC; minutes later, they fly smack into a flock of geese, whose heavy, large bodies zip right into the both engines and render them inoperable. With hardly any time to think about what he's doing, Sully concludes that the plane doesn't have enough altitude to make it to an actual runway, so he takes the plane down in the Hudson. Over the next week, he and Skiles are the subject of over-the-top adulation in the media and unnecessarily accusatory investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is hoping to find some proof of human error in order to protect US Air and its insurers. And that's really the whole of the story, and its virtually non-existent conflict.

So how to make a movie out of this? The film offers two solutions, and they're both entirely successful. First, of course, is to heavily tilt things away from "what happened" to "how it affected Sully", turning this into a psychological drama oriented primarily around Hanks's wonderful portrayal of Sully, a dark-hued piece of virtually silent acting in which modesty shades into self-loathing depression, and stoicism turns into inarticulate mumbling from a man who is painfully ill-equipped to process what has happened to him. The film turns the most generic imaginable biopic scenes of Sully having awkward conversations with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) over the phone as she deals with unwanted media attention and implicitly asks for some comfort, into deeply harrowing moments of human fragility and suffocating isolation. It helps that Linney, if anything, is even better than Hanks: given a stupefying nothing of a role, even by the standards of "the suffering wife" clichΓ©s, Linney manages to suggest through very little beyond her unraveling tone of voice an entire feature film's worth of being trapped in a house by a raving mob of reporters and terrified by the omnipresent knowledge that your beloved almost died in a terrible plane crash. The immensely small-scale, low-key intimacy on display is unexpected and entirely rewarding, almost objectively the best thing Sully has on display.

The other solution is a function of the first: having decided that the movie shall be about Sully's attempt to process what happened, the screenplay is built around a flashback structure which mimics that process. Under the studio logos at the start of the film, we hear the sound of Sully and Skiles preparing for take-off, and then see what appears to be the event itself, but turns out to a nightmare about attempting to return to LaGuardia and instead crashing the plane into downtown Manhattan. We're thus already in the subjective realm of Sully's head, and when the film finally gets around to depicting his act of bravery, it's done in a way that reiterates his thought process during the post-crash plotline. In fact (and this is the film's more impressive structural trick), we see the accident happen three times in the course of the movie, every time as a flashback of Sully's, every time doing something completely different: both in terms of the information and perspectives we're offered, and in terms of how it ends up feeling. In fact, the full portrayal of the water landing and the subsequent rescue option functions more as the climax of the film (in a Shakespearean, "the climax happens in the third act of five" sense), rather than its instigation. For it is after relieving the complete event, from start to finish, that Sully begins to emerge from his dark cloud of self-doubt and start focusing on how to prove his virtue to the hostile NTSB. And this, as much as Hanks's performance, reinforces the idea that Sully isn't about an act of heroism, but about how a man deals with a traumatic event in the whole world trying to praise him rather than let him own that trauma.

The question, however, remains: is all of this an argument that the movie, in and of itself, needs to exist? One thing it absolutely cannot be accused of is an excess of either ambition or scale. To an extent, it makes its smallness work on its behalf: there's a lack of fuss in the no-nonsense 96 minutes that capture something fascinating about the workaday nature of piloting an airplane, even one in a moment of crisis. It is, ultimately, a procedural, staring without editorial inflection at the actions taken inside the cockpit of a plane and later outside of it in the water. There's not a scrap of melodrama to it, which makes it a surprisingly effective thriller: the surgical precision with which Eastwood and company march through the steps of escaping a sinking plane makes Sully one of the most viscerally unsettling plane crash movies I have seen.

All that being said - and I don't want to diminish the reality that it's a greatly pleasurable film to watch, on top of everything, which counts for a whole lot - everything that Sully does, another film could probably have also done, and maybe with more consequence. Its very best element, which is the way a man deals with trauma while obsessive reliving his violent memories, is basically a watered-down version of what Eastwood just did in American Sniper. And without spoiling things, I'd be hard-pressed to explain why the ending feels so damn unfulfilling; but there's such a thing as efficiently wrapping things up once the emotional journeys are complete, and then there's such a thing as failing to actually complete all of the journeys.

On top of which, the craftsmanship is at a surprisingly low ebb for an Eastwood movie: the sound design is extraordinarily good - it is one of the most plane-sounding planes in the annals of cinema - but everything else ranges from proficient and totally devoid of character (Tom Stern's utterly banal cinematography, which returns us to more or less full saturation after years of his Eastwood films looking bleached-out and wan; an aesthetic that I've always thoroughly admired, though I know it brings the pair in for plenty of mockery), to the actively deleterious in the case of the editing by Blu Murray (a member of Eastwood's team of associated craftspeople since 2002 and an assistant editor for most of that time, promoted to led editor for the first time), which slices multiple scenes into unnecessarily small chunks that feel more frantically pieced together than the mood of the moment requires. The cockpit scenes during Sully's first actual (non-dream) flashback are a particularly clear example of the edit being simply busy, without any point to it.

In short, Sully is nowhere near a masterpiece; but was anybody expecting it to be? Frankly, I feared it would be much worse than a nifty real-life story injected with great thoughtfulness and gravitas. It is middlebrow drama through and through, but there's nothing sinful in that, and in Hanks's work it has at least one element that I think will long outlive this moment and this awards season. Plenty of movies have gotten by with no more than that.