When US Airways flight 1549 lost power in both engines moments after taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, and was forced to make a death-defying water landing on the Hudson River, it was a rare, fluky event. The fact that none of the 155 people on board died made it something else entirely—a real-life miracle. And that’s exactly what the next day’s newspapers called it: “The Miracle on the Hudson.” The heroic, steel-nerved pilot in the cockpit was Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Sully is and was a mild-mannered father and husband, a cool-under-pressure aviator with decades of flying experience and the sort of matching snowy hair and mustache that lets nervous passengers know they’re in good hands. His appearances on news shows and the late-night talk show circuit shortly after his day of daredevil derring-do only reinforced the image of him as a modest, reserved, and kind of square American hero. The dictionary definition of “the friendly skies”.
There was no doubt in the days after the Miracle on the Hudson that this unbelievable media event would be turned into a shelf of quickie books, a 20/20 special or two, and maybe a TV movie of the week. But the fact that it’s now been turned into a prestige, early Oscar-season studio film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks is kind of surprising. After all, the flight lasted all of 208 seconds. And Sully didn’t seem like a character with that much dramatic backstory to unpack. Maybe that’s why Sully, as wonderfully acted and sure-handedly directed as it is, ends up feeling a little padded and stretched thin. There’s not enough narrative meat on the bone.
And yet, it’s an effectively thrilling story of quietly unassuming, can-do American heroism—the kind, sadly, we don’t get to witness much these days. Which is to say, it’s the kind of vehicle that fits Hanks like a bespoke captain’s uniform. Hanks, now 60, ages himself for the role with the kind of heaviness the unsung carry. He erects an emotional wall to help channel the grace of a man who seems most comfortable not taking bows—a workaday American not asking for any special acknowledgment for merely doing what he considers his job, and doing it well. That’s a rare thing nowadays when everyone seems to be in a competition to see who can blow their own horn the loudest.
If Hanks seems perfectly cast, it’s equally hard to argue with Eastwood behind the camera either. The two-time Oscar-winning director may have launched his career on the backs of amoral antiheroes, but ever since the turning point of Unforgiven in 1992, he’s aged into Hollywood’s resident hagiographer with such films as Flags of Our Fathers and American Sniper. You could argue that his late-career Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion has sanded off some of the edge of his films, but the audience for stars-and-stripes heroism has followed him. And I suspect it will again for Sully. It’s a feel-good movie arriving at the height of our nation’s feel-bad times.
The film kicks off with a plane crash. A plane crash that doesn’t end as well as the one on January 15. Its echoes of the horrors of 9/11 are a dicey gambit. It announces that Eastwood won’t be playing it safe. But, of course, it’s a false alarm. Because Sully, if nothing else, is a movie that plays it safe. That opening credit crash is a fake-out in more ways than one. It turns out to be merely a dream as Sully snaps out of sleep, gasping for breath in a cold sweat. You get the sense that he’s had this waking nightmare a million times before. In his line of work, how could you not? Soon, we see how that fateful day really played out: The checklist minutia of a routine flight from New York to Charlotte that most of us sitting back in coach or up in first class never think about because we’re too busy punching out those last “important” texts or checking our Facebook feeds before we have to put our phones into flight mode. The “lucky” passengers who barely manage to make it onto the flight. The mother back in coach with a newborn. The roll call of Airport soap opera bit players. Up in the cockpit Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) check and doublecheck their manifests and controls. Then, shortly after takeoff when all seems peaceful, a flock of birds comes hurtling toward the plane and gets sucked into the whirring engines, causing them to go silent, dead. Sully and Skiles break into ice-water cool action, running through the checklist of emergency protocols before Sully makes the gut decision to turn for the Hudson. The back-and-forth between the cockpit and the control tower back at LaGuardia is rivetingly tense. But, you check your watch and wonder, where’s the rest of the movie in all of this?
Sully recalibrates. It shifts its attention from the pilots’ heroism to the aftermath of the miraculous landing: the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation that puts Sully and Skiles through the wringer, forced to defend their actions—whether they should have turned around and headed back to LaGuardia or nearby Teterboro instead of attempting the needlessly risky water landing. Like a lot of people in the audience, I’m sure, I’d never considered that Sully was greeted with anything but backslaps and bouquets from his superiors. But it turns out not to have been the case and draws your outrage as the federal suits launch into their inquisition—even if the verdict is never in any real doubt. This isn’t Flight, after all. It’s Sully…starring Tom Hanks, for Pete’s sake!
During the film and its series of committee-room interrogations, the events of January 15th get replayed over and over (in flashback and in flight simulations) so endlessly that you start to feel like the movie’s spinning its wheels. A few back-and-forth cutaway phone calls between a still-shaken Sully and his wife (Laura Linney) don’t add much suspense or emotional insight into what makes this man tick. He remains a bit of a mystery, but the film’s visual effects conjuring the crash-landing over and over again never lose their impact no matter how many times we see it. It’s a white-knuckle technical feat with real visceral power made even more harrowing by the sight and sound of the plane’s flight attendants, strapped in and trying to mask their fear, shouting “Brace. Brace. Brace. Head down, stay down!” in high-pitched unison from the back of the plane like a chorus of the damned.
Still, the reason why the movie works at all is Hanks. I can’t imagine it airing anywhere but on Lifetime without him. On the page, Sullenberger is a pretty vanilla, one-dimensional character. A cipher with wings pinned to his chest. There’s nothing inherently cinematic about him. But Hanks, of course, brings a career’s worth of excellence, depth, good will, and trust-me assurance to the story that isn’t necessarily in Todd Komarnicki’s script. As in last year’s equally hagiographic Bridge of Spies, he doesn’t give a flashy performance or go big in the way most actors would. He knows there’s power in subtlety, in quiet, in the unspoken gesture—the words that aren’t spoken. He knows that less can often be more. Like Sully, he’s the kind of guy you want behind the controls. B