In January 2009, captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles were faced with an unprecedented situation. During their takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, a flock of geese spontaneously flew through both of the aircraft’s engines and rendered them powerless to continue through the flight. Forced to react quickly on behalf of his terrified passengers, Sully surmised that the best option was to land their crippled airplane on top of the nearby Hudson River, a decision that saved the lives of all 155 people on-board US Airways Flight 1549 and captured the attention of news outlets around the world.
Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of this heroic event and the impact it has on those involved is the focus of his new film Sully, which stars Tom Hanks as Captain Sully and Aaron Eckhart as First Officer Skiles. While the media adequately covered the result of the landing itself, it didn’t spend as much time focusing on the NTSB’s investigation to the crash, which alleged that Sully could have flown back to runways at one of two alternate airports in both New York in New Jersey despite his limited circumstances. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn, who you may recognize as Skyler from Breaking Bad, play the investigators tasked by the NTSB to suss out the situation.
It’s no surprise that the landing itself makes for the most exciting material in the story but Eastwood is smart about the way that he depicts fractions of the event from different perspectives before giving us an unbroken and definitive account towards the middle of the movie. When it did arrive, my heart was pounding as the plane taxied to the runway and began to take off. The amount of tension that’s built during the scene, from the quiet stillness of the engines right after the bird strike to the concurrent cries of “heads down, stay down!” from the flight attendants right before the crash, only subsides the moment after the plane hits the water.
With its white-knuckle crash sequence and subsequent probing from government officials looking to find flaws in the pilot’s performance, Sully has parallels to the recent Robert Zemeckis film Flight, in which Denzel Washington’s pilot character is initially hailed as a hero. While that film has different goals as a character study and redemption story, I can’t help but feel that Eastwood could have dug deeper into his protagonist the way Zemeckis did so well in his feature. Other than the fact that Sully is a hero who used a lifetime of training and preparation to divert a catastrophe, he doesn’t have much else to say about the central figure of his story.
Perhaps some of that also falls on Hanks, who portrays Sully as the calm and collected professional that he came across as in his numerous appearances in the press but jettisons some of his natural charm in the process. Eckhart fares a bit better in his role as Skiles, sporting a brilliantly authentic pilot’s mustache and a cunning wit that provides some much needed bits of humor to some of the film’s more drab stretches. Sully is an honorable and workman-like effort from Eastwood that reminds us that pure heroism is still powerful enough to inspire in increasingly cynical times.