Like many people, I thought I knew what happened on January 15, 2009 with US Airways Flight 1549, which Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed on the Hudson River about 3 minutes after takeoff from La Guardia Airport. A bird strike resulted in the loss of both engines and the captain had no choice but to do what he did, right?
Turns out, according to Clint Eastwood’s Sully (based on Sullenberger’s memoir, Highest Duty), we barely knew the story at all.
The movie starts out with a startling scene, of a plane in trouble flying low in Manhattan. I’ll leave it at that.
The story unfolds in a nonlinear way, alternating between what happened on the flight that day, the ensuing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, and Sully’s internal turmoil as he starts to doubt his actions (should he have tried to make it back to LaGuardia? Did he risk killing everyone on board by making that water landing?).
Tom Hanks, on a streak of playing real people (see: Captain Phillips and last year’s Bridge of Spies), is very good as Captain Sullenberger. It’s all in his eyes—the recognition that something is terribly wrong with the plane, the quick analysis of his options, his decision to do the impossible, and his courage as he does his job.
Even after landing, he doesn’t stop being the captain, wading through water in the fast-filling aircraft to make sure everyone has deplaned before being the last man off himself, then begging rescue workers to do a head count during a chaotic situation. It’s not possible due to passengers being taken to different hospitals, but later, when Sully is told simply, “One fifty-five,” Hanks’s quiet reaction, understating the immense relief the pilot must’ve felt in learning everyone has survived, makes that number seem like the most wondrous thing he’s ever heard.
Aaron Eckhart as copilot Jeff Skiles and Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, Lorraine, have little to do besides being supportive of the captain as the NTSB questions his decision to land on the river (the captain stresses on, not in, the Hudson), while the recovered data supposedly shows he had much safer options.
The investigation provides good conflict and an untold angle to the Miracle on the Hudson story, but I wondered how much of that was exaggerated for cinematic effect. Captain Sullenberger pulled off a remarkable feat, everyone lived—why were they trying to, well, sully his reputation and 42-year career?
The real NTSB investigators have since protested their portrayals, while Sullenberger, who consulted on the movie, stands by his account.
Though this movie is about a recent event whose outcome is well known, director Clint Eastwood still manages to make it thrilling and incredibly suspenseful. Scenes of the plane diving toward water, or coming straight toward the camera, or flying way too close to buildings made me tense. I was like Sully waiting for that head count after the landing—I could not relax.
Eastwood hired real emergency workers to give the rescue scenes veracity. Sully shows how the end result wasn’t so much a miracle, but a group of people coming together to take care of one another during 208 seconds of terror. (Stay for the credits to see some of those real people.)
Nerd verdict: Gripping Sully
Photos: Warner Bros.