The story of commercial airline pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger, known simply as Sully, appears to divide opinion. There’s a preconceived notion among many that there can only be five minutes of story worth telling, and that’s understandable. But they’re wrong, though if you’re among those who have assumed this and action is all you want, then Sully may not be what you’re looking for.
When US Airways Flight 1549 was hit by a flock of Canadian Geese resulting with two blown engines shortly after take-off, the airbus was forced into a waterlanding on New York’s Hudson River. It was the most terrifying 208 seconds any of those 155 passengers had ever experienced, and presumably ever will. If you’re thinking of the film in terms of a disaster thriller then, yes, it’s five minutes. But Sully is principally a biographical drama. If the ordeal wasn’t harrowing enough for the captain, then the inevitable investigation from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that followed was in it’s way equally torturous.
Most should remember the January 15, 2009 event, the tale of heroism on the part of the captain (Tom Hanks), his First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the crew, the newspaper headlines and the pictures, even the David Letterman interview, but most will be unfamiliar with the torment and the investigation that hounded Sully. As coldly stated at a private meeting between the captain, his co-pilot and an investigative team from the NTSB, the landing on the Hudson may have worked fine for the passengers but it didn’t for the airline or the insurance company.
During the opening credits we catch brief glimpses of the disaster already in progress, but the outcome is not the one we know. It’s a crash into the side of an NYC skyscraper, an event that would have occurred had the captain stuck to his original plan; an attempted return to LaGuardia. But it’s a nightmare, one that must have regularly plagued the tormented captain. Then there’s the psychological nightmare. During what appears to be a live TV remote from Katie Couric, the reporter, playing herself, turns to the camera and asks Sully a direct question. “Are you a hero or a fraud?”
During the days, weeks and months that followed the miraculous event, Sully was never comfortable with the tag of hero. Wherever he went, even though New Yorkers wanted to either hug him or shake his hand, the NTSB investigation created the kind of doubts that continually forced the man to question his actions. To the public it was obvious; he was a genuine hero, nothing less. How could he not be? He saved lives, not only the ones on the plane but those who could have fallen victim to a fiery death had the attempt of a LaGuardia landing proceeded. Isn’t it obvious?
Not to the NTSB. A computer simulation – not one but twenty – stated that the plane would have made it safely back to the airport had Sully followed procedure. “Forty-two years and I’ll be judged on two hundred and eight seconds,” Sully laments to his co-pilot and friend, Skiles.
Like the man, and as played by Hanks, the slow, thoughtful and deliberate pace of a Clint Eastwood movie makes Sully a perfect character to center an Eastwood directed film. It’s unfussy, just like Sully, and with a running time of only 96 minutes, there’s no padding. It’s weakest moments are reserved for the time spent with the passengers. The dialog among the three men who almost didn’t make the flight feels forced and theatrical. Unlike the reality created when the story centers on Sully, his co-pilot, his supportive wife (Laura Linney) and the overall NTSB investigation, those scenes with the passengers have a TV quality to them; the passengers are acting.
The 2012 Denzel Washington feature Flight mistakenly had the airline crash shown in all its detail in the first act followed by a largely plodding two act melodrama, Sully keeps the spectacle at bay. The opening nightmare is our first fragmented glimpse into what happened, the second is almost an hour later when the event is seen mostly from the perspective of the passengers. The third is reserved for the concluding moments at the hearings when the NTSB replays the cockpit recordings. We witness the events and the decisions made exclusively from the point of view of the pilot and co-pilot. By this point, the film has essentially educated us to fully understand what is being said and why, and it’s nothing short of riveting, as, indeed, is most of this film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 96 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)