Sometimes we know how a film is going to end – James Cameron’s Titanic comes to mind – and despite that salient impediment, it doesn’t matter. People weren’t hesitant about seeing that film; they cared little about already knowing the ending; they wanted to see how the movie got there.
Most New Yorkers and many other people the world over know the story of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 that took off from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, and shortly thereafter hit a flock of birds, promptly knocking out both engines. Somehow the plane ended up in the Hudson River, all 150 passengers and crew of five survived, and the captain became a hero. In director Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully, knowing how the story ends is only the beginning.
Starring Tom Hanks (in a deep, moving performance as Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot responsible for the “Miracle on the Hudson,”) the film is about heroism, but it is also about the quality of leadership, about someone who does not shirk the responsibility he has been given for every life on every plane he has ever flown over a 40 year career.
When that plane goes down, Sullenberger acts like a teacher on a field trip, wanting to account for every one of the 155 souls under his care. Sully stays on board until everyone is evacuated from the craft, even double checking the back of the plane that is taking on an increasing amount of icy cold water. This exemplary behavior puts the captain as the last of those saved, showing that he was willing to “go down with the ship” if necessary to ensure that all under his watch survived.
When speaking about the film, Eastwood noted, “I wanted it to be like it was. It’s a New York story,” and indeed the actions of the brave and seemingly fearless Captain Sullenberger are ultimately successful thanks to the quick first responders and crew of the New York Waterway ferries (depicted with thick authentic New York accents) who rush to the rescue to make certain that Sullenberger’s brilliant maneuvering of the crippled jet was not in vain.
Sully is not just a true New York story, but one of that is also America’s, a post-9/11 tale of heroism and perseverance that a country in 2009 (and now in 2016 as well) weary from the terrorist attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq so desperately needed. For a population still jittery (as this New Yorker is to this day when I see passenger jets flying over my city) about airplanes being used as weapons, the realization that a jet could be part of something positive and uplifting came not a moment too soon.
However, since this is an Eastwood film, Captain Sullenberger doesn’t just walk off into the sunset as a hero after successfully guiding the plane into the water. As we know from Eastwood’s films like Unforgiven, heroes tend to be dragged upon by different sides, and who is good and bad gets lost in the shuffle, sometimes making the walk off into the sunset difficult, and in the end the hero usually won’t leave unscathed.
Here Sullenberger must stay in New York as aviation safety experts dissect his actions, wondering if “human error” was the reason why Sully couldn’t fly the plane back to LaGuardia Airport after both engines were taken out by flocks of birds. The experts find that one engine may have been partially operational, and computer simulations indicate that the jet could have made it back to the airport. The questions mount and the direction of the panel would seem to be to charge Sullenberger with some kind of dereliction of duty.
Feeling the pressure of being under intense scrutiny about his actions before and after the event, Sully is peppered with questions about his sleeping habits, his family life, and “When was your last drink?” Sully starts second guessing himself, falling into nightmares where the plane didn’t make it to the river and crashed into the city. Hanks navigates these moments with credible angst and horror, and as Sully imagines the plane swooping through the cityscape and eventually diving into buildings, those 9/11 memories and wounds are once again opened for the audience, and the thought of what could have happened if Sullenberger hadn’t been so calm and steady is indeed frightening.
The scenes inside the plane of the passengers and the cockpit and the exterior shots of the jet skimming over bridges and buildings are harrowing (credit cinematographer Tom Stern for exceptional work). Eastwood is able to capture the fear of those characters whom we get to know briefly, but enough to make it clear that there are 155 distinct people on this plane in jeopardy of losing their lives.
One may scoff at how the National Transportation Safety Board, a panel of experts, and flight simulators could have ever called into question Captain Sullenbeger’s actions or intentions on that day, but Eastwood uses that as the dramatic external conflict necessary to drive the internal conflict Hanks’s character must endure.
It should be noted that the NTSB has called into question the way events have been portrayed in the film, claiming that their inquiry ended up praising Sullenberger, but whatever the case may be, Eastwood no doubt has employed dramatic license to adapt these events to create the gravitas and tension necessary for the film to work.
Supporting Hanks is a fine cast, led by Aaron Eckhart (finally finding a role worthy of him since his fine turn as Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight) as co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who brings the only bits of levity to the film and also supports Sully throughout. Laura Linney portrays Sully’s wife Lorraine as a frazzled mess with all the reporters camped outside her house, and one only wishes that Linney and Hanks would have had a scene together instead of only over the phone. Jamey Sheridan and Anna Gunn make the most of their roles as the investigators who appear to be on a witch hunt and seem to care more about losing a plane than 155 people.
In the end this powerful film is an uplifting tale that tells a true heroic story in dramatic fashion, highlighting the extraordinary achievement of one man and all the other people on the plane and in the city who helped him succeed. After you hear the last line of dialogue in the film, you will have a smile on your face as you prepare to exit the theater, and that is the way it should be because Sully is a film meant to make everyone go home happy.