Sully

Posted by Joel Copling on September 8, 2016


The controlled emergency landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, on January 15th, 2009, is one of those events that, years from now and perhaps with the help of this dramatization, will inspire a question that begins with, "Where were you when...?" I can tell you, reader, where I was -- in the midst of an eight-hour class of a wintry mini-semester at Taylor University in Fort Wayne, Indiana, entering its final hour for the day, when news broke. My reaction mirrored everyone else's: shock that such an event was possible and relief that every soul onboard survived. Todd Komarnicki's screenplay for "Sully" reflects that kind of reaction by entirely living within the moment. Of course, everyone in real life knows that the emergency landing was a success, but the inherent drama of the story is in the landing itself and in the fact that so-called miracles look different from the inside out.

The public has no doubt of Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger's (Tom Hanks) heroism. The event became a media circus, as these things do, especially considering, as one man points out to the face of the heroic act late into the picture, that it happened in New York. "Good news coming out of New York is good news for everybody," he says, "especially if it involves a plane." And he's right. Half of the relief on the part of the public and, very probably, the passengers was that the situation wasn't a hijacking of Flight 1549, and the other half was relief involving everyone's safety (possibly in that order). At one point, various law enforcement officials and regular citizens witness the plane's trajectory into the Hudson River from their vantage point behind windows, and almost inevitably, our own minds are drawn to similarly captured video footage and anecdotal accounts of the September 11th attacks. Here, the New York Police Department was similarly heroic.

The captain's first officer, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), also holds Sullenberger's heroism above reproach, having helped land the plane from the cockpit. Director Clint Eastwood, with superb help from cinematographer Tom Stern and editor Blu Murray, frames the incident several times -- first to emphasize the chaos from an impersonal standpoint during the opening credits, second to recount from the passengers' point of view, and, finally, to take stock of every fateful decision that got the plane to its location. We also get, smattered here and there, relevant biographical information about Sullenberger (to whom everyone, obviously, refers by the shorthand of his surname, which is shared by the title), though just the basics -- a childhood of learning to fly with his dad, a stint in the military as a fighter pilot, and a loving wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), and two daughters.

Those who doubt the captain's heroism include Sullenberger himself, who believes he was simply doing his job, and a trio of NTSB officials, played by Anna Gunn, Mike O'Malley, and Jamey Sheridan, who believe that some form of recklessness took place. An investigation is launched. The ultimate safety of the passengers and crew is not in question; rather, the entire investigation is premised upon the potential danger to the 155 onboard. Both engines blew out, Sullenberger claims, when a flock of geese was in the plane's path; the left engine, which detached and sank in the Hudson, may still have been salvageable enough for them to reroute back to the LaGuardia Airport. Conversation, consideration, and reflection follow, and it's nice to see a drama featuring level-headed people who, on all sides, simply want the right thing for everyone. The investigators are not villains but curious professionals simply doing their job.

The drama here is procedural in nature, simply filtered through a flashback structure that aids in more than exposition or repetition. It acts as an autopsy of a desperate situation, of the desperate response and search for answers, and of the shared experience of reacting to the "Miracle on the Hudson," as it has become known during the years since it occurred. The performances aid a lot in such a straightforward telling having such a considerable impact. Hanks is reliably solid as Sullenberger, the actor's commanding stillness impeccably matched to a man who needed to remain calm to keep others calm, as well. Eckhart and Linney are here almost exclusively to offer moral support, but that's expected in such a confined, situational drama and the actors do their part well. "Sully" uses its simple structure to cultivate the philosophical nature of a real event that was stranger than fiction. It's one of the year's best films.

Film Information


Tom Hanks (Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger), Aaron Eckhart (Jeff Skiles), Laura Linney (Lorraine Sullenberger), Anna Gunn (Elizabeth Davis), Mike O'Malley (Charles Porter), Jamey Sheridan (Ben Edwards), Ann Cusack (Donna Dent), Jane Gabbert (Sheila Dail), Molly Hagan (Doreen Welsh).

Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book "Highest Duty" by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow.

Rated PG-13 (peril, brief language).

96 minutes.

Released on September 9, 2016.