This movie is like Tom Hanks himself – a celebration of the everyman, in this case, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Hanks), the US Airways pilot who was thrust into the limelight by a confluence of gut instinct and really good luck that culminated in the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” on January 15, 2009. Sully and first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were justifiably hailed as heroes in the aftermath of that incident for their ability to remain incredibly calm and composed as they “landed” their Airbus A320 in the middle of the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both engines shortly after take-off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Miraculously, all 155 souls on board the plane that day survived. We all saw it, either live or on constant televised replay… dramatic images of commuter boats and first-responders in helicopters plucking scores of passengers from the wings of the aircraft. And therein lies the problem with Sully. It’s hard to get overly-invested in the drama when you know everything works out in the end. So while director Clint Eastwood makes an admirable attempt to tell an interesting, lesser-known story about the subsequent investigation by FAA and NTSB desk jockeys and computer-simulated recreations devoid of the “human factor”, all that really matters is the 208 seconds that had passengers and crew heeding the Captain’s call to “brace for impact!” and flight controllers on the ground fearing the worst when the plane drops off their radar. It’s dramatic stuff for sure. But you can only replay 208 seconds so many times in a movie that stretches to hit a 95-minute running time.
The first half of Sully is pretty darn boring and employs some cheesy dialogue and nightmare sequences that evoke images of 9/11. The second half, however, salvages what might otherwise have been an okay TV movie from the late 1970s (imagine Airport ’77, only nobody gets hurt). It has some tense moments that also left me thinking about another cold day in January – in 1982, when an Air Florida jet crashed into the icy Potomac in Washington, DC. That one didn’t end so well. Sully is a testament to what can happen when everything goes right after something goes terribly wrong. The proof of what happened on January 15, 2009 is in the audio recordings and the video archives. So you can’t really second-guess the plot or the outcome, or the actions of Sullenberger upon whose memoir, “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters”, the film is based.
I’ll be curious to see what working (and retired) pilots think of Sully. I suspect the chatter and checklists and split-second responses mimic their day-to-day as well as their disaster-training experiences. I sure hope so. For the rest of us (the passenger types), it’s rare that we get to see a dramatic re-enactment of the moments leading up to a plane crash (or “forced water landing,” as Sully would say) in which everyone survived. We’ve certainly all thought about what we would do in that type of situation. The miracle on the Hudson gives us hope that there’s always hope – as long as you don’t try and grab your luggage on the way out. Sully is a good movie about a great moment in recent history. But does it soar? Occasionally – for about 208 seconds at a time.