I was astounded by Sully, by how intense and exciting it was. We all know the story. We all know about the ‘miracle on the Hudson,’ when pilot Chesley Sullenberger brought his disabled airplane down for a water landing, and all 155 passengers were saved. ‘Sully,’ as Sullenberger was known to friends and family, became an American hero. He was on Letterman. He was on Leno. We all knew who he was–this tall, white haired guy with a prominent moustache. How do you tell a story that familiar and that recent?
Clint Eastwood directed, from a screenplay by Tom Komarnicki. And dramatically, the focus was on a hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board, determining if the plane’s destruction could be attributed to pilot error, an engineering or construction flaw, or just plain bad luck. That is a part of the story we don’t know much about, but we do know how it turned out; if Sully had lost his pilot’s wings, it would have been a national story and something of a scandal. We know what happened (in broad outline), and we know how it turned out. Where’s the dramatic tension?
Turns out, there’s plenty of drama; the movie is terrifically exciting and intense. There are two reasons, I think. For one, Tom Hanks plays Sully. And through Hanks, the movie ties the NTSB hearing to Sully’s own struggles with the emotional aftermath of his emergency landing. Not just that; the film ties Sully’s ordeal, and the trauma of PTSD, to our own American national nightmare; to 9/11. It does this quite explicitly; the film begins with a nightmare. Sully, piloting his plane, trying to make it to an airport, smashing it into a New York skyscraper. Then waking from his dream in a panic.
Those images haunt the movie, just as our own collective memory continues to haunt our nation. In fact, we see Sully’s plane hit a building three times in the movie. (Nightmares, and also in flight simulations). It brings home to us how desperate the situation was. US Airways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. No more than a minute into the flight, the plane flew through a flock of geese, which destroyed both engines. Sully’s first impulse was to return to LaGuardia. He soon realized that he did not have the altitude or velocity to turn and make it back. But in the multiple times Eastwood shows us the incident, we see what we also know; that Sully’s plane was flying over one of the most populated areas on the planet. Any wrong choice would not only impact the flight 1549 passengers, but untold other victims. We see him narrowly avoid a bridge. And finally, with no other options available to him, he opted for a controlled water landing in the Hudson River. And everyone survived.
Hanks is terrific in this, though that’s hardly surprising. Tom Hanks has an astonishing ability to play command. I first saw it in Apollo Thirteen; he’s one of those rare actors who can play a leader and make it look effortless. I’ve known a few military officers in my day, and the best of them have that quality; a way of projecting authority. When we see the real-life Sully on talk shows and the like, he comes across as a pleasant, self-effacing sort of chap. But that’s not how Hanks plays him. At a crucial part of the NTSB hearings, it looks bad for him; it looks like he might really lose his pilot’s license. And then he just . . . takes charge. It’s a terrific moment, and I don’t know many other actors who could play it so convincingly. Hanks’ Sully is, yes, struggling with self-doubt and unable to stop reliving a terrible experience. But he’s also a leader, a pilot. His strength carries the movie.
All the actors are great in this, though. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn play head investigators for the NTSB, and they’re both given the thankless challenge of making government bureaucrats (persecuting a guy we like), seem human and real and sympathetic. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, and she’s got an equally thankless task, playing the ‘loyal and supportive wife.’ But Linney gives us a sense of some genuine tensions in their marriage, and her scenes sparkled. I also loved Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s co-pilot. He’s exceptional in, again, a pretty underwritten role.
But it’s not just the leads. This is a movie with many smaller parts, from the passengers on the plane, to the flight attendants, to the air traffic controller, to the ferry boat captains and crew and the helicopter rescue divers and the medical personnel.
Flight 1549 went down on a freezing day in January. Even after its water landing, the passengers were at serious risk. They survived because a whole bunch of people did their jobs. They survived because Sully, faced with a myriad of impossible choices, made the least bad one available to him. They survived because Skiles did his job just as well. They survived because the plane’s flight attendants performed superbly, as the well-trained professionals they are. They survived because a whole bunch of ferry pilots hustled their ships out to the plane. The point is made explicitly by Sully; he tells Skiles ‘we did our jobs.’
For that matter, the plane also makes it clear that the NTSB investigators, who we initially think of as the film’s bad guys, were also competent professionals doing their jobs well.
It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood, at 86, was attracted to this story. Eastwood is, above all, a craftsman. His films are meticulously assembled, exquisitely edited. He’s worked with the same crew for years, or when they retire, their offspring. He’s famous, of course, for being Hollywood’s most notorious political conservative. But I sense sometimes that he’s not conservative because he hates government, but because he’s fed up with big government’s incompetence and inefficiency and corruption. I get that. And I find his films a pleasure to watch.
Anyway, Sully is far more engaging than I ever suspected. It’s a wonderful combination; Clint Eastwood at his best, Tom Hanks at his best. And finally, it makes the case that Sully is miscast as a hero. He’s just a guy who did his job. That’s enough, and that’s plenty.