We need a hero every now and then. Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the pilot who somehow guided his damaged plane to a landing on the Hudson River on a cold day in January, 2009, allowing every one of the 155 passengers and crew on the plane to survive, is definitely one of those.
Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as the heroic pilot, tells the story of that fateful day . . . and a little bit more besides. Interestingly, the focus of the movie isn’t on the “forced landing,” as Captain Sullenberger calls it, but on the aftermath, as Sully the man struggles to deal with sudden fame and the potential ramifications of a National Transportation Safety Board investigation of the incident. For while the rest of America was celebrating Sully as a hero, the bureaucratic investigators were looking at whether he could have, and should have, gotten the plane back to LaGuardia or to another nearby airport. If the investigation determined that Captain Sullenberger was at fault — a scenario the movie presents as a real possibility — he could lose his job when his family could ill afford it and also see that sudden celebrity turn to ashes in his mouth.
Sully is a well-made human interest story that packs a touching emotional punch. The highlight of the film, of course, is the abrupt flight of US Airways Flight 1549, the bird strike that crippled the plane, and the quick and calm decisions of Captain Sullenberger and his co-pilot, and the flight attendants. The depiction of the incident is absolutely convincing and astonishingly realistic, and a testament to just how far Hollywood special effects have come. The viewer is on board, in the cockpit, and ultimately with the crew and passengers as the doomed plane begins to sink into the frigid river, water gushes in, and the survivors huddle on the plane’s wings and safety rafts hoping to be saved. It’s a harrowing experience, even when we know that it will all turn out all right.
As the events unfold, you can’t help but identify with the desperate passengers who know that something is wrong and then hear the Captain say: “This is the Captain. Brace for impact.” (Those are words I hope to never hear on my travels, no matter how calmly they might be spoken.) But the passengers were in the hands of angels that day, because somehow the captain and crew kept them alive. Sully later says, “we were just doing our jobs,” but we know that there is more to it than that, and he’s just been appealingly modest about having done something tremendous. And equally uplifting are the immediate responses of the ferry boat captains, diving units, firefighters, and police officers who keep the passengers and crew of the sinking plane from drowning or dying from hypothermia. There were many, many heroes on the Hudson that day.
Hanks is terrific as Sully, the man. We feel his anguish as he is tormented by nightmares of what could have been, and we feel his surge of joy and pride when he is finally told that every one of the people on the plane under his charge survived. He knows in his gut that he made the right decision, but it’s not clear that the administrative state will agree with him. When the formal NTSB hearing finally occurs, and Sully’s years of experience allow him to show that the computer simulations and the human simulations are dead wrong, we know that he has saved the day once again — by keeping a true hero from being unjustly maligned and allowing his reputation to remain, as it were, unsullied.
I encourage everyone to go see this film. And stay in your seats while the credits roll if you want to get an extra feel-good treat.