On January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways pilot Chesley”Sully” Sullenberger and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, were flying a commercial airliner from LaGuardia for a standard run, the same way Sullenberger had flown for forty years. When his Airbus A320 struck a herd of geese that destroyed the engines, Sullenberger’s quick thinking landed the plane safely in the Hudson River. The pilot’s decisive flying decisions had saved 155 passengers but in the days that followed, the investigation called his character and experience into question. Sully is the story of one man’s heroism, and his vindication in the face of those who weren’t there.
Todd Komarnicki’s script is based on Sullenberger’s own book, Highest Duty, wrapping a pair of all-time greats, director Clint Eastwood and lead actor Tom Hanks, in a story that inspires and challenges the audience to examine their own thinking. The story itself is straight forward: we meet Sullenberger (Hanks) and Skiles (Eckhart) in the aftermath, as the National Transportation Safety Board digs into the events surrounding the water landing.
What unfolds over the next two hours is an exploration of Sullenger the man and the pilot, through a series of flashbacks to his previous experiences flying, current conversations with his wife (Laura Linney) and Skiles, and the interviews before a board of NTSB agents (Yes, Dear’s Mike O’Malley and Law & Order: Criminal Intent’s Jamey Sheridan). We see his inner struggles, including the nightmares that involve how the landing could have gone; we hear the way that his clinical mind attempts to unpack and sort through what happened in those 208 seconds. All of this is carefully depicted by the power of Hanks’ performance, the Komarnicki script that provides facts (but not too many) and witty banter, and the direction of Eastwood who has proved himself to be a worthy director of films that examine heroism.
Because I am not much of a news watcher or avid flyer, I was oblivious to the way that the investigation played out, and found myself moved by the way that Sullenger found himself on the spot. The NTSB is certainly the antagonist here, as their inclination is to search for human error. But when their findings are fueled by technical information and by statistical findings, our view of the likable Sullenberger is confronted with a mountain of data.
And here lies the principle of the film: not every moment can be explained away with facts. Some require the nearly holy recognition of the human condition – we have the capacity for wonderful acts of courage and moments outside of the realm of the expected. One might even call them … miraculous.
When we examine the story of Sullenberger – that is, the collected fragments brought together in Komarnicki’s script, we recognize that Sullenberger acted the way that he did because he had the forty years of flying experience that he did. We can see that his calm demeanor, his strong decision-making, his soul – these components made the miracle possible. Sullenberger’s life up until January 15, 2009 was preparing him for this moment. Without those other moments, maybe Sully doesn’t become a hero; maybe if someone else is flying the plane… there’s no movie to be made.
A day after seeing the film, I keep asking myself: what moment or moments has my life lead me to so far? What situation am I uniquely gifted to handle? What calling has God placed on my life, that the hurt, joy, experience, education, and skills I have are all divinely ordained for?
This is the beauty of Sully: when the moment came, Chesley Sullenberger was ready. And the passengers and the crew will be forever grateful.
Special features include a deeper look at Sullenberger in “Sully Sullenberger: The Man Behind the Miracle,” especially his character; “Moment By Moment: Averting Disaster on the Hudson” as the real-life Sullenberger, Skiles, and traffic controller Patrick Harten walk the audience through what happened; and “Neck Deep in the Hudson: Shooting Sully” as Eastwood and two producers (Frank Marshall and Allyn Stewart) show how the ‘splashdown’ was shot on film.