“It’s been a long time that New York had news this good, especially with an airplane in it.”
We toss around the word “hero” a lot, but often that word describes ordinary people just doing their jobs with extraordinary results. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is one such person. On January 15, 2009, Sully was piloting a US Airways plane out of LaGuardia Airport when a flock of Canada Geese struck the Airbus A320. With both engines gone, Sully realized there was no hope of landing at either LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. He made the decision to land the plane in the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people on board.
Scenes of the water rescue dominated the airwaves and newspapers all over New York and, indeed, the world. The event was declared “The Miracle on the Hudson.” Sully was hailed a hero by the media and he and his team even appeared on The David Letterman Show. One New York tavern named a drink in his honor. “The Sully, Grey Goose with a splash of water,” the bartender tells him. It’s one lighthearted moment in Clint Eastwood’s taut, tense, and terrific film starring Tom Hanks as Sully.
While the public was celebrating a new hero, things were darker behind the scenes. (The film is based on Highest Duty by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow.) The National Transportation Safety Board investigating the incident seemed determined to prove that Sully made the wrong decision. Facing the NTSB panel, Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are told that computer simulations prove they had enough time to make it back to LaGuardia. The second engine still had thrust and would have supported the plane for the time it took to land on the ground, they say. “Not possible,” Sully tells them. Leaving the meeting, Sully tells Skiles, “I’ve delivered a million passengers over 40 years but in the end I’m going to be judged on 208 seconds.”
Not only would such a ruling by the NTSB turn the tide on public opinion, but would effectively end Sully’s career and cancel his pension. Sully has to stay in New York until the NTSB completes its investigation. While he wades through a sea of journalists whenever he leaves his hotel, his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), is essentially a prisoner in her home, the media camped out on her front lawn.
Sully maintains an authoritative presence in public, but in private he suffers flashbacks and has trouble sleeping. (In interviews, Sullenberger revealed that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for several weeks following the accident.) In the film, Sully’s nightmares find the plane crashing into buildings, exploding in flames, scenes that are sure to remind many of 9/11. Battling those sleepless nights, Sully takes to running, one evening finding himself across from the Intrepid Museum, staring at a fighter plane that he once piloted and reliving another moment when he had to bring down a disabled plane. (Sullenberger graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, holds a post graduate degree from Purdue, and was once a member of the Air Force’s aircraft accident investigation board.)
Hanks turns in a fine performance as Sullenberger, demonstrating a steely resolve while making what many would consider a foolhardy decision to land a jet on water. But he also allows us to see Sully behind the scenes, uncomfortable basking in the media’s glare while also having his decision second-guessed by government officials who have never flown a plane. Co-pilot Skiles (a great supporting performance by Eckhardt), never wavers in his support of Sully, even when confronted by the NTSB panel. For that government group, Eastwood has gathered actors who do unlikeable very, very well. Mike O’Malley, Jamey Sheridan, and Anna Gunn as the NTSB investigators seem less willing to discover the truth and more eager to bring Sully down, whatever the cost.
While those confrontations are fascinating, the center of the film is, of course, the miracle itself. Eastwood has recreated the entire event with such realism that we can feel the terror the passengers felt when Sully ordered, “Brace for impact!” Soon after landing, the passengers find themselves standing on the plane’s wings or huddled in one of the inflated slides. And while Sully managed the impossible by landing the plane, those passengers might have perished in the Hudson’s frigid waters if first responders had not made it to the scene so quickly, taking the terrified survivors onto boats, rescuing two who fell into the water, and getting them needed medical care.
When the credits role, we see photos from the actual rescue. We also see a Sully himself in a short video greeting the survivors during a reunion, the reconstructed plane in the background. As splendid as Hanks is in the role, there’s nothing like seeing the hero himself embracing the people he saved with his experience and skill.
The Miracle on the Hudson remains one of New York City’s finest moments. During a time when we desperately need heroes, Sully reminds us that they walk among us.
Sully opens nationwide September 9, 2016.
Photos courtesy of Warner Brothers.