Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was the right man for the job. As US Airways Flight 1549 descended toward the broad waters of the Hudson River, he did what was necessary to save the 155 passengers and crewmembers on his plane.
The potential for a catastrophe was there, but with more than 40 years and 20,000 hours of flying experience, and extensive work in crash investigations and aviation safety, it was as though every moment of Sully’s career had led to that day.
The crash landing was tailor made for a large-scale movie. Even though everyone knows how the story ended, the intensity, spectacle, and heroism of those five minutes were perfect fodder for the big screen. Re-creating the landing in all of its harrowing glory wouldn’t have been enough, though. The trick was finding the thread of humanity in the account of the crash and weaving it through every aspect of the narrative.
For this, director Clint Eastwood was the right man for the job. Working off of a solid screenplay by Todd Komarnicki, who based his script on Sullenberger’s autobiography, “Highest Duty,” Eastwood made a movie that celebrates the human intellect and spirit.
Much of “Sully” focuses on the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of the incident, and the use of computer simulations to suggest Sully could have made it back to LaGuardia or another airport instead of risking a water landing. When the sims initially land the plane safely on the ground, and then human pilots replicate the results, NTSB officials question whether or not Sully made the right decision, putting his life’s work and future as a pilot in jeopardy.
But Sully didn’t have a computer processor to do his thinking for him, or precise instructions for how to land the plane. With both engines lost and his plane rapidly descending, he had to rely on his knowledge of aviation and the aircraft he was flying to devise a plan, and then act on his decision before Flight 1549 crashed.
“Sully” veers off course from the actual events in its depiction of the NTSB officials, who come across as villains. While the NTSB did ask a lot of questions during its 18-month investigation (which is greatly compressed in the movie), its officials were not prosecutors; their purpose was to find flaws with the crash and make safety recommendations in the interest of avoiding future disasters. In truth, the Miracle on the Hudson, as Sully’s feat came to be known, had no villains, only a hero.
Surely Eastwood knew this. But for the movie to work dramatically, he needed to turn up the heat on Sully after his heroic act, so he drafted the NTSB officials to serve as heavies. Eastwood isn’t too hard on those guys, though, and by the end, they do come across as more sympathetic than bureaucratic.
Out of Eastwood’s depiction of the investigation rises a portrait of a man who used all of his faculties as a human being to pull off what few pilots have done. Eastwood reinforces this idea in scene after scene, including one in which Sully wades knee-deep through rising water to make sure every soul made it off his plane. In the end, I believe Eastwood made the right choices.
This includes the way he filmed the scenes depicting the crash landing, which look spectacular. I especially liked the shots of the plane skimming the crowded New York City skyline as it drops toward the water. If you have the opportunity to see “Sully” on an IMAX screen, do so. Eastwood filmed the movie using IMAX cameras, and it shows in the breadth and scope of those shots.
Just as impressive is the manner in which Eastwood depicted Sully mentally piercing the cacophony during the descent and concentrating on landing the plane. Eastwood didn’t use jerky camerawork and fast cuts to suggest chaos; rather, he clearly showed each step of what happened, and how it built on what came before and affected what followed. In doing so, Eastwood used the visual language of film to infer the mental process that must have taken place in Sully’s brain. Remarkably, he did this without undercutting the tension. When the plane landed, as I knew it would, I breathed a sigh of relief.
Although Eastwood shows the crash landing twice, each sequence is unique. The first time, he established the big picture, both inside and outside the plane; during the second run-through, he kept the camera in the cockpit. By focusing on Sully and his co-pilot, Eastwood reminds viewers that the Miracle on the Hudson is about what one man accomplished.
The making of the film, however, involved hundreds of people, including the sound effects team, which created an extraordinary audioscape for “Sully.” I believe I could merely listen to the crash landing and tense up from the experience. When I heard the hull of the plane groaning as the aircraft dropped, I tightened my grip on my armrests.
Much like Eastwood was the right director for “Sully,” Tom Hanks was the right actor for the title role. The part doesn’t stretch him much, but he has the gravitas need to make the audience sympathize with Sully. In a film about human achievement, Hanks reminds us that being human also means being vulnerable. For all of his poise during the landing, the incident shook up Sully, who later had nightmares about what could have happened.
Its unfair depiction of NTSB officials aside, “Sully” is a good movie. It was thoughtfully written and directed, it’s solid technically, and it’s entertaining. It also has a singular focus, down to its title. Eastwood didn’t call the film, “The Miracle on the Hudson,” which might have made more sense from a marketing standpoint, he called it, “Sully,” because that’s what the film is about. See it on a big screen, if you can; just don’t forget that its message lies not in the grandeur of its images but in the things made possible in the human mind.
Rated PG-13 for peril and brief, strong language