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Three and a half minutes. That is how long Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger had to safely land his Airbus 320 after a flock of geese disabled both its engines on the initial climb out of La Guardia airport. The plane is airborne for only six minutes before Sullenberger brings it down for a perfect landing on the Hudson River. His 40 years of experience as a pilot informs him that he probably cannot make it to any of several nearby airports for a conventional emergency landing. The movie stars Tom Hanks as “Sully” the pilot responsible for the extraordinary landing of the plane on January 15, 2009 with no casualties – an event dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson.”
Viewing the CGI recreation of the shocking landing is undoubtedly the high point of the film and provides the film’s most compelling scenes. And, in that sense, Sully delivers tenfold. Director Eastwood and his screenwriter Todd Komarnicki (working from Sullenberger’s book Highest Duty) make the surprising decision to revisit the event multiple times throughout the lean 98 minutes runtime, offering the perspectives of Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), the flight’s passengers and attendants, the air-traffic controllers and the emergency-response teams. Each reenactment is compelling. Perhaps most horrifying are the nightmare scenarios Eastwood conjures up, during which Sullenberger imagines a fatal outcome had he followed through on the contested strategy of returning to LaGuardia Airport with the plane’s engines failing. Watching an aircraft smash into New York skyscrapers is very unsettling, recalling the horrors of 9/11. These terrifying sequences do however go a long way to highlight that Sullenberger’s actions saved not only the 155 lives aboard Flight 1549 but also countless more. Although based on real events, knowing what happens ahead of time doesn’t reduce the tension. Eastwood understands how to use audience expectations to the movie’s benefit. For example, anticipation lends an edge to even minor actions such as the routine pre-takeoff checks performed by Sullenberger and Skiles.
Following the crash or, as Sullenberger likes to correct folks, the “forced water landing,” the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launches its required post-accident investigation. When early reports suggest that a tarmac landing on two nearby airports could, in fact, have been successfully executed, the NTSB investigators begin to question Sullenberger’s judgment, and whether he’s a hero or just a dangerous show-off. Some of the Board members (“data crunchers”) accost Sullenberger and Skiles with a barrage of specific questions, ascertaining whether they in fact did the right thing. The interrogations are infuriating (at one point, Sullenberger is even asked if he has “troubles at home.”). Mike O’Malley plays one of the lead investigators as mean-spirited, smirking his way through the inquisition like a Disney villain. Anna Gunn fares better, lending a needed dose of humanity to her committee member. (By the way, complaints have already been lodged regarding the NTSB’s questionable portrayal in the film.)
Tom Hanks delivers an internal and sympathetic performance, never burrowing too deeply into Sullenerger’s psyche, other than to visibly demonstrate that he is haunted by the landing. In a small role as his far-away and worried wife, Lorrie (Laura Linney) does some admirable phone-acting (emoting believably with only a prop to interact with) The often overlooked Aaron Eckhart is fine as the flight’s co-pilot At 86 years of age, I see no diminution in the work of Eastwood. For a movie with a guaranteed happy ending, it is amazing how much suspense he was able to mine. Sully is a moving tribute to a low-key hero and inspires confidence not only in its leading man, but in honest, hard-working Americans everywhere. Highly recommended.