On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York’s La Guardia Airport. A few minutes after take-off the plane was struck by a flock of geese, which disabled both engines. Veteran pilot Chesley Sullenberger (played here by Tom Hanks) was forced to make an emergency landing, bringing the plane, carrying 155 passengers and crew, to rest in the middle of the Hudson River. Despite the icy conditions in the water, all 155 people survived the ordeal. The incident made media headlines around the world and was known as “the Miracle On The Hudson.” Sully himself was hailed as a hero, although he modestly said that he was just doing his job.
In the aftermath of the forced water landing, a National Transport Safety Board hearing was established to investigate the incident. Sully feared that his life and reputation would be destroyed by the findings of the hearing and he often second-guessed some of the decisions he made and was plagued by doubts over his actions. In the end, he says, he had been flying for over forty years but he would be judged on those fateful 208 seconds in which he had to make snap decisions and respond to an incident unheard of in the annals of aviation history.
After all the airline company was looking for a scapegoat, and in the rush to judgement by the aviation experts, it was easy to blame what happened on pilot error. And the numerous simulations they had conducted based on the flight parameters showed that the plane could have landed safely at either La Guardia or New Jersey’s Teterboro airport. In the period leading up to the hearing, Sully was plagued by nightmares in which the plane crashed into New York skyscrapers, scenes which are deliberately meant to evoke memories of 9/11, an event which has left an indelible scar on the collective psyche of New Yorkers.
Sully has been based on the book Highest Duty written by Sullenberger himself and Jeffrey Zaslow. The book has been adapted to the screen by writer Todd Komarnicki, his first screenplay since 2007’s Perfect Stranger. The film has been directed by Clint Eastwood, who at 86, is one of the oldest and most prolific directors still making great movies today. He directs the material with his usual careful attention to detail and measured pacing. This is clearly a personal film for Eastwood.
The film unfolds as an exploration of what makes a hero, a theme that has been common to much of Eastwood’s work as a director. It is a bit sentimental too with a footnote about how this incident brought together the best of New York to save the passengers from the icy waters of the Hudson. The film also looks at the conflict between the human factor and an over reliance on technology. And Eastwood makes a Hitchcock-like cameo – albeit as a face on a movie poster in Times Square, but it is a nice touch.
Eastwood adopts a non-linear approach to the story, shaping it around the NTSB hearings, and using flashbacks to tease out the details of the fateful flight. Some of these hearings may remind audiences of Robert Zemeckis’s recent drama Flight. Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan are good as the trio of bureaucrats heading the investigation who second guess Sully’s decisions made in the heat of the moment.
Eastwood shows us the forced landing three times, from different perspectives, but he stages the forced landing with only minimal use of CGI effects. Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern does a superb job with the visuals and suffuses those scenes with a palpable air of tension. And he captures some great vistas of the New York cityscape that lends authenticity to the drama. Sully runs for a lean tight 98 minutes, making it one of the shortest of Eastwood’s recent films.
Surprisingly this is the first time that dual Oscar winning filmmaker Eastwood and dual Oscar winning actor Hanks have worked together in their careers. Hanks is perfectly cast as Sullenberger, and delivers a typically strong and earnest performance. He brings his usual authority, gravitas, quiet heroism, and innate sense of trustworthiness and dignity to the role. Hanks is obviously the go-to man to play real life heroes on screen, and he makes his Sully an unassuming and modest hero. There are a few flashbacks to his days as student pilot and his time in the air force to help establish the character and give us a sense of his experience. During the end credits we get to see the real life Sullenberger and the survivors.
There is solid support work from Aaron Eckhart as Sully’s co-pilot Jeff Skiles; while Laura Linney, although good, is given little to work with as Sully’s wife Lorraine, who watches the dramatic landing unfold on television and feels helpless.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tom Hanks, Anna Gunn, Laura Linney, Aaron Eckhart
Release Date: 8 September 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television