Seven years ago, on a bitter January afternoon in New York, an emergency turned into a miracle. After hitting a flock of birds and losing thrust in both engines, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River, saving all 155 souls on board. It was a cinematic act of heroism, a contemporary tall tale.
While the crash is certainly a spectacle worthy of the silver screen, the story seems a bit too straightforward to warrant a feature-length film. Clint Eastwood’s Sully tries to convince us that there’s more to it than meets the eye. It doesn’t quite stick the landing in that regard, but it has several spellbinding moments that hold you firmly in its grip.
Tom Hanks stars as Sully, the kind of good-hearted everyman he was born to play. He perfectly captures the real Sully’s calm reserve. The film gives you no reason to question his actions, but it does introduce three investigators to do so for you.
These members of the National Transportation Safety Board basically try to prove that the plane’s left engine was still functioning, allowing Sully to make it back to the airport. They support their case with computer simulations, thus sucking the humanity out of the harrowing situation.
Perhaps Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki are making an argument against regulation and the red tape surrounding heroes. But it seems more likely that they’re aiming for a populist, “Old Hollywood” approach in which the protagonist can make sweeping speeches and stand up to his naysayers. When the film puts Sully on trial, Hanks emerges as an average Joe evocative of Jimmy Stewart, calmly proving his pure intentions in the face of cynicism. This is simply the kind of spectacle that mainstream audiences like — a common man on the world’s stage, a down-to-earth guy growing larger-than-life.
In reality, no one tried to burn Sully under a microscope. The investigators were just doing their jobs, and their questioning ended quickly. But it’s occasionally entertaining to watch Sully put them in their place, especially when he butts heads with the leader of the investigation, Charles Porter (played by Mike O’Malley, who seems to be having fun sinking his teeth into the slimy role). Ultimately, though, Sully is too good of a guy to make you worry that he has any enemies who could possibly take him down.
If you want a similar story with more suspense and moral complexity, watch Flight. It’s also about a miraculous crash landing that leads to scrutiny, but the investigation isn’t pointless; it’s a much-needed chance for the lead character (Denzel Washington) to face his flaws. He commits an act of heroism in the midst of drowning in his demons. But rather than walking away without a scratch as a hero, he’s forced to finally take his skeletons — namely his struggle with alcohol — out of the closet. His good deed reveals his dark side and allows him to redeem himself. The only thing that really surfaces from Sully’s ordeal is the fact that he’s a good guy.
Sully suffers when it tries to cast a dark cloud over its subject. It’s better when it simply explores the crash from different perspectives. We see it from the eyes of the pilots, the passengers, the air traffic controllers, the scuba cops and the river ferry crew. It’s a fascinating dissection of what could’ve been a disaster. The film is particularly mesmerizing when it focuses on Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart in a strong supporting performance). The dull quiet of the cockpit is deafening. And when Sully matter-of-factly says, “We may end up in the Hudson,” it’s as gut-wrenching as the actual audio recording of his correspondence with the air traffic controllers. Better yet, when he discovers that all 155 passengers are safe, it’s far from a melodramatic Oscar-bait moment. It’s quiet and elegantly understated — like Sully himself.
This isn’t Eastwood’s best film, and it doesn’t completely succeed in translating the true story to the big screen. But it’s not without moments of spine-tingling movie magic. It may not linger in your heart long after you leave the theater, but it will put a lump in your throat as you sit there. Like the landing itself, the film is a fleeting yet effective reminder that miracles don’t only happen in the movies.