Sully, Rated PG-13, 96min
The contrast in the just-released film ‘Sully,” which director Clint Eastwood exploits to great advantage, is this: Chelsey Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), also known to friends and then the media as “Sully,” is your classic Everyman. He has flown countless people to their destinations for 40 years without incident. He has lived an ordinary life, developed a love of flying as a youngster, served in the military as a pilot, and until his recent retirement logged some 20,000 hours in the air. He’s married with two children and resides in Northern California.
It’s Jan. 15, 2009, at 3:15 in the afternoon. Captain Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are at the helm of a US Airways flight 1549, departing out of LaGuardia in New York. Within minutes of being airborne, the airliner hits a swarm of Canada geese. A number of birds are sucked into the engines, and the pilots lose all thrust. In other words, the airplane is suddenly a glider, the silence ominous.
Sully and Skiles begin a brief and tense conversation with the LaGuardia control tower about their ability to turn back and land at the airport. An alternative airport, Teterboro, in New Jersey, is also suggested.
Both Sully and Skiles agree that they have neither the power nor the altitude to make a safe return to either airport. Ultimately, it is a decision that resides with Sully. Should he make an attempt and hope for the best and try for LaGuardia or Teterboro? Or should he risk all and use the Hudson River as his landing strip. Both Skiles and Sully know that a water landing is as risky as any attempt to reach one of the two suggested airports, and the results could be equally catastrophic. The moment defines the rock and the hard place.
Sully decides that their initial evaluation is correct — the airports are not an option — and he radios the control tower that he is going to attempt to set the airbus, with a total of 155 people on board (which includes the crew), down on the Hudson. The water temperature is less than 45 degrees. Time will be of the essence to get all on board out of the plane and onto the wings and hope for a first-responders rescue. Anyone who ends up in the water will suffer immediate hypothermia and could die.
It is in those moments as Sully makes the decision of a lifetime that an ordinary man becomes extraordinary, and he brings to bear his hours of flight experience and judgment. He not only makes the call to use the Hudson, but he finesses the landing, causing the plane to remain intact on impact. It is a remarkable moment. Miraculous, really.
What is also remarkable, at least in the film, is that the National Transportation Safety Board held several hearings by a select board of inquiry into the crash, which began by challenging Sully’s decision to not return to LaGuardia.
A significant part of the film is devoted to Sully and Skiles defending their decision, insisting that had they returned to LaGuardia, all on board would have certainly died.
It was only after viewing several simulations of the crash, and listening to Sully and Skiles’ testimony, that the NTSB reluctantly concluded that the pilots were correct in their evaluation of the situation and had no choice but the Hudson.
What is still unclear, even after some research, is whether director Eastwood and his writers took some literary license with this aspect of the film. Sully and Skiles did testify before Congress, but there is no mention of the NTSB’s aggressive questioning of the pilots’ decisions.
What is clear is that Hanks is the ideal choice to portray Sully Sullenberger, a reticent and decent man and a highly competent pilot who did not readily embrace his sudden fame. No one does Everyman better than Hanks.
Unexpectedly, “Sully” is a genuine nail-biter, even though the audience knows going in the final outcome. It’s the getting there that makes for a solidly fine and entertaining film.