An amazing event can only be complimented by a serious effort to make a movie about it. That was accomplished in Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as the titular pilot. It is a film that is excellent on its own, but the experience can be enhanced by reading "Highest Duty", on which the picture is based.
As everyone knows, on Thursday, January 15th, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after losing both engines to a bird strike and determining he’d be unable to reach an airport. His action resulted in all 155 passengers and crew surviving and being rescued by local ferry boats. What follows is instant praise and celebrity for the modest veteran pilot, along with an inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board and recurring nightmares about possible failures to save everyone.
When it comes to the events of that day, Eastwood nails it. Everything you experience on the screen happened, from the eerie silence in the main cabin to the scuba divers jumping from great heights to rescue people in the water. While the latter would be just one of a series of action-movie tropes in just about any other movie, it all serves to honor the actions taken to ensure such a miraculous outcome. I don’t know who played everyone, but maybe it’s for the best. After all, people who didn’t know one another came together that day.
An important element is the lack of any music during any of the crash sequences. It all depends on the dialogue and sounds heard in the foreground and background. Adding music would have been another easy way out to raise the tension and I'm glad this was a road not taken. The moment speaks for itself and Clint Eastwood understood this.
While Tom Hanks can add this to his list of brilliant performances without a hint of shame, it is Aaron Eckhart who steals the show, playing First Officer Jeff Skiles. From his remarks about Sully’s business and website (all real) to his conduct during the emergency to his closing remark, he rises to the occasion much like his real-life counterpart.
Unfortunately, the NTSB doesn’t get such a positive, or even fair, treatment. From the beginning, the investigators seem intent on proving Sully’s actions to have been improper, a decision which could ruin his career. This is a far cry from what really happened, where the agency praised the pilot’s heroic actions within twenty-four hours of the crash. It seemed like an easy way to give the film a villain and, as noted by a reviewer, “worked to defend a hero who didn’t need defending”. Sure, there were questions about whether they could have made it back to the airport and questions asked about things like drinking are standard procedure, but the prosecutorial attitude was unnecessary. Captain Sullenberger did deal with some self-doubt and PTSD after the incident. Why couldn’t the movie have been more about that? If nothing else, this was a waste of Anna Gunn’s talents.
Otherwise, I have just two minor nitpicks. A recording of an earlier event in the movie leaves out Jeff Skiles’s “wo”. I feel like the recorder would have picked that up, especially since it recorded absolutely everything else before and after it. Second, Jeff Skiles’s final line was one of the best parts of the movie. It’s just too bad he didn’t really say that. It would have been just as awesome.
But for all my complaining and nit-picking, this movie tells an amazing story about an incredible event. It should be celebrated for pulling it off and pulling it off so well. Like Captain Sullenberger and flying, Clint Eastwood applies his learned lessons and experiences to only improve in his own right. It’s a phenomenal film for its story, director, the actors and their performances, and the sheer experience of what happened. I’m sure you saw it on the news, but this is something else entirely. I encourage everyone to see it. Enjoy.