“Life is easier in the air,” sighs First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). Easy? Not when the plane you are piloting is subject to a bird strike that disables two of the engines. That’s the story told in “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s real-life account of ‘Sully’ Sullenberger’s miraculous landing of a disabled plane on New York’s Hudson River.
Tom Hanks plays the title character, a pilot with 42 years experience. “It’s been my life,” he says of aviation, “my whole life.” January 15, 2009 started off as a routine day for the seasoned pilot. As the captain of US Airways Flight 1549 he left New York’s LaGuardia Airport for a stopover at Charlotte Douglas International Airport when his plane was disabled by a flock of birds who flew into the engines, knocking out the plane’s navigating system. In just under four minutes Sully assessed the situation and, realizing there was no time to turn back, made the decision to land the craft on the Hudson River. “I’ve delivered one million passengers over 40 years,” he says later, “but will be charged on 208 seconds.” The risky landing was successful and all 155 passengers and crew survived with only minor injuries. “It’s been a while since New York had news this good,” says one airline official, “particularly with an airplane in it.”
The film dramatizes the landing but spends most of its time in the aftermath, the resultant onslaught of publicity and some very difficult questions from a National Transport Safety Board investigative panel.
“Sully” is a slight but entertaining movie. Because we know how it ends Eastwood’s attempts to create tension by and large don’t work. Its you-are-there recreation of the landing is exciting when it places the viewer in the plummeting metal tube—the mantra “Brace for impact” will forever be branded on your brain—melodramatic when it hits the water. It’s the centerpiece of an otherwise movie talky movie.
The ditching of the plane may get your pulse racing but it is the personal story that will stay with you. As Sully Hanks is dignity personified. Questions gnaw at him in the days leading up to the inquiry, causing sleepless nights and mild friction with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) but he remains steadfast. It’s old school heroism and it looks good on Hanks.
As a function of the story, but also, I suspect, as a preference of the filmmaker, technology is downplayed throughout. When the NTSB uses computer simulations to attack Sully, Skiles, who has most of the good lines in the film, says, “They’re playing Pac-Man while we’re the ones flying the plane.” The point being made is that computers lack the human touch but it does feel a bit like Grandpa complaining that the new fangled television remote is too complicated.
“Sully” is a well-constructed, occasionally exciting old-fashioned story of heroism in the face of modern cynicism.