‘Sully’: Will Clint Eastwood’s collaboration with Tom Hanks follow Oscar footsteps of ‘American Sniper’?

Even though Clint Eastwood has won four Oscars out of an impressive 11 nominations – Best Picture and Best Director for “Unforgiven” (1992) and “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), we still underestimated him for his 2014 war drama “American Sniper,” which exceeded most expectations with six nominations including Best Picture. So it would be wise to consider his follow-up film, “Sully,” just as strong a contender, right?

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“American Sniper” was undoubtedly helped by the fact that it was a war drama. The motion picture academy loves those. Consider past Best Picture champs like “Bravehart” (1995), “The English Patient” (1996) and “The Hurt Locker” (2009). Other winners like “The King’s Speech” (2010) and “Argo” (2012) have centered around global conflicts even though they weren’t as explicitly about warfare.

“Sully” doesn’t have that advantage, but like “American Sniper” it tells the true story of a heroic figure from recent history. That also describes a broad range of other recent Oscar contenders, from “Zero Dark Thirty” to reigning Best Picture champ “Spotlight.”

For that matter it describes “Captain Phillips,” which was the last time star Tom Hanks piloted a vessel in dire straits. Hanks played the title character in that film, a merchant mariner whose shipping vessel was raided by Somali pirates in 2009. Now he’s the title character in “Sully,” playing Chesley Sullenberger, the airline pilot who successfully landed on the Hudson River after a bird strike disabled his plane – that also happened in 2009, a busy year for heroic captains.

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Where “Sully” might even have an advantage over “American Sniper” is that its title character doesn’t come with nearly as much baggage. “American Sniper” was met with criticism over whether it whitewashed its title character, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, or oversimplified the Iraq War he fought in. Captain Sully, meanwhile, seems to be a more clear-cut hero without those kinds of skeletons lurking in the closet. Voters may thus have fewer reservations about awarding this story about Sully averting disaster and saving the lives of his 155 passengers and crew members.

Having Tom Hanks in the lead role doesn’t hurt. He’s beloved in Hollywood and a two-time Best Actor winner (for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump” back to back in 1993 and 1994). In just the last few years alone he has appeared in several Best Picture nominees, including the aforementioned “Captain Phillips” (2013) as well as “Toy Story 3” (2010), “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2011) and “Bridge of Spies” (2015).

But even though Hanks’s films are regularly nominated for Oscars, he himself has been regularly snubbed. In fact he hasn’t earned a nomination since “Cast Away” in 2000. That was his fifth nomination, and he earned all five of those bids in a span of 12 years, but it has now been 16 years since he has been nominated at all.

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Perhaps he has been penalized for playing morally upstanding do-gooders – voters think he’s just playing himself, especially since he hasn’t undergone the drastic physical transformations or hardships of recent Best Actor winners like Matthew McConaughey (“Dallas Buyers Club”), Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything”) and Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”). And Hanks hasn’t played against type as much as another frequent Hollywood hero, Denzel Washington, who won Best Actor as a vicious villain in “Training Day” (2001) and was nominated again recently for “Flight” (2012) as a pilot who saves the day but lies about his addiction to drugs and alcohol.

But perhaps Eastwood’s direction will be enough to return Hanks to the Oscars. Though Sully is a stoic role without the usual emotional fireworks that appeal to voters, Eastwood has a strong track record with actors, directing five to Oscars: Gene Hackman (“Unforgiven”), Sean Penn and Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”), and Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman (“Million Dollar Baby”). And many more have been nominated for his films, including Bradley Cooper in “Sniper,” Matt Damon and Freeman in “Invictus,” and Angelina Jolie in “Changeling,” to name a few.

Besides Eastwood and Hanks’s work, “Sully” could be an awards contender in other categories. Its non-linear story structure cuts back and forth between the perilous water landing and the ensuing investigation, which highlight the screenplay by Todd Komarnicki and editing by Blu Murray. The landing itself also showcases the film’s sound design.

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