In 2009, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made an emergency plane landing on the Hudson River and saved the lives of all 155 passengers and crew. Director Clint Eastwood’s Sully — which debuts in theaters Friday and stars Tom Hanks as the title pilot, Laura Linney as his wife, Lorrie, and Aaron Eckhart as his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles — brings that event to the big screen, and looks at the heroism of it, and criticism that surrounded it.
“Everybody knows the story of what happened at ‘Miracle on the Hudson,’” Eckhart says of the script, written by Todd Komarnicki and adapted from Highest Duty by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. “What they don’t know is that there was a [National Transportation Safety Board] hearing that went on for quite a long time to see if it was the right thing to do, who was at fault if anybody, and it was quite traumatic. These pilots, as well as the staff and passengers, suffered [post-traumatic stress disorder] after.”
He continues on the scrutiny that ensued, “You expect if somebody lands a plane with dual engine failure into the Hudson and saves everybody’s life that they would walk away scot-free, and it’s not always the case. You have to then go to a hearing to investigate whether or not you did the right thing, if you could have saved the plane, if you could have landed at Teterboro or JFK, so there’s a lot that goes into it.” There’s a lot on the line too, like jobs, pensions, and reputations.
Preparations to recreate the crash landing involved Hanks and Eckhart spending time in a simulator, and the experience gave the pair insight into the high tensions on the day. “They had the flight plan of the crash so we got familiar with that, which was incredible because you got the sense…of what it could’ve been like,” Eckhart explains. “The decision making was intense and the protocol, so we got to live just a little part of that.” Beyond the simulator, Eckhart worked on getting his private pilot’s license and flew a number of times, and also met with Skiles and Sullenberger.
“[They were] very concerned about their story, wanted to be represented in the proper light, [wanted] things [to be] accurate, which we definitely tried to do [and] was very important to us, and also they’re very humble guys,” Eckhart says of the real-life inspirations. “They don’t look at themselves as heroes. They were just guys doing their jobs, but they take their jobs very seriously. If there was one message to get out for them it is: This is what we trained for, this is why there are very few air accidents, this is why people can trust us when they get on the plane.”
So what of Eckhart’s director and costar? Working with Eastwood, he says, “was a dream,” especially as he’s an icon with many decades of experience. “He’s confident in himself and in the people around him,” Eckhart says. “I had a smile on my face the entire time because Clint’s been one of my people I’ve looked up to throughout my life, as a filmmaker [and] as an actor.” Eckhart had similarly good feelings about Hanks, praising the star as “a fantastic actor and person, and he embodies Captain Sullenberger.”