On January 15, 2009, US Airways flight 1549 took off for a routine flight between New York and Charlotte, North Carolina. But, as anyone who was following the news at that time knows, it became anything but routine only two minutes after takeoff. As it ascended, the plane encountered a flock of geese and both engines were rendered useless. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and copilot Jeffrey Skiles had to make life and death decisions and maneuvers in a matter of less than 3 ½ minutes. The outcome was a forced landing/crash (the wording varies by the speaker – Sully preferred “landing”) on the Hudson River. Everyone on board survived but the aftermath – media coverage, the NTSB investigation, the toll on Sully and his family, the ultimate finding regarding his judgment- are what director Clint Eastwood’s film “Sully” examines.
The script by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book “Highest Duty” by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, shifts through time as it recounts the events of that day, the later investigation, plus Sally’s early training. Expert editing by Blu Murray makes the jumps in time and flashbacks easy to follow.
Through it all, Sully (Tom Hanks) keeps his composure, at least outwardly. As the film shows, he and others involved experienced the natural aftermath of a trauma- anxiety, stress, insomnia, nightmares.
Eastwood and the real-life Sullenberger could not have found a better actor than Hanks to portray the pilot. Hanks has made a career of playing likable, admirable, and approachable characters. He channels Sullenberger so well it’s easy to forget it’s Hanks up on the screen. The other players around Sully- copilot Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), Sully’s wife Lorrie (Laura Linney), and the NTSB’s main “doubting Thomas,” Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley)- all add to the story. But, ultimately Sully is the heart of the film.
The special effects, especially of the plane’s descent and hitting the Hudson, are expertly rendered. The sound of the plane and the crew adds to the audience’s experience of the events.
While the film condenses the drama- in real life the required investigation took 15 months– it keeps intact a message regarding the dual fragility and strength of life. The event had a direct impact not only on Sully, his crew, and the passengers, but also on the air traffic controllers, the citizens who saw the plane firsthand (and probably had flashbacks to September 11, 2001), and the crew of the seven barges that heard the mayday call and immediately sprang into action.
At a pivotal point in the plot, Sully calmly but strongly asks the NTSB board to consider “the human factor.” Eastwood’s movie asks the audience to do the same. Released on the same weekend as the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the film pays tribute to first responders– be they trained professionals or ordinary citizens who see a need and help. In a year of divisive politics, “Sully” reminds America it takes all of us, contributing what we can, to successfully navigate life.
Potential audience members who find flying stressful may be leery of seeing “Sully.” However, they may be surprised to find the film reassuring as to the training and professionalism of flight crews.
Audience members who stay through the end credits will see a real life reunion of Sullenberger, the crew, and the passengers. As Sullenberger and his wife share with the gathering, the events of 2009 profoundly impacted all involved. “Sully” helps the audience experience some of that feeling.