Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger saved the lives of 155 people, including his own, when he completed a successful water landing of a passenger airliner in the Hudson River after double-engine failure in January 2009. He became an instant hero. And director Clint Eastwood loves a hero.
But how do you turn a six-minute flight into a 96-minute movie? In the case of the film Sully, it takes equal parts nail-biting suspense and cheesy storytelling. Alternating between the two, I vacillated between genuine fear during the flight sequences and incredulity at the lengths the movie goes to in order to have a sustainable conflict.
Two times during the movie, viewers experience a cockpit view from the jet as it flies through a flock of geese that disables both engines, leaving the pilots to try to find a way to save the lives of the passengers on board. These sequences are frightening and feel all too real. I knew exactly how all of this ended, but I was still on the edge of my seat. There is added gravitas because the image of a plane flying low through New York City is haunted with tragedy.
Also ringing true was Sully’s surreal experience of surviving a very traumatic event, having post-traumatic nightmares and insomnia because of it, and, at the same time, being hailed as a national hero. Suddenly he is a recognizable celebrity at every turn.
However, the main conflict of the movie is not man versus physics. It is pilot versus the National Transportation Safety Board. What was probably a long, boring procedural investigation becomes, in this film, a nasty fight by the NTSB to end Sully’s career. One would expect questions as to what happened when, but it’s impossible to take seriously that the board would come after him with such ferocity. Lots of last-minute evidence proves, unsurprisingly, that he did the right thing after all, and all is well by the end of the movie. The manufactured tension of the hearings cannot and does not hold up to the real tension of the actual event it is centered around.
A solid cast, including Tom Hanks as Sully, Aaron Eckhart as his copilot, and Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, do the best they can with the roles they’re given. Hanks is the perfect choice to play Sully, and Eckhart is warm and supportive as his admiring colleague. Linney is handed the rather thankless role of being continually concerned and emotional on the phone, a job she does ably.
Still, for all the cornball moments, I enjoyed watching the film. Captain Sullenberger, the flight crew, the air traffic controllers, the New York Coast Guard, the captains of the ferries, and the helicopter rescue teams are all everyday heroes doing their jobs with confidence and competence, making the city a better place. It was a nice change of pace from spandexed superheroes wreaking havoc on the city as they “save” it from evil supervillians. And it’s a good reminder that greatness is sometimes just a side effect of doing your best at your job every day. (Warner Bros.)