Film Review: Sully
directed by Clint Eastwood
written by Todd Komarnicki, based on Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow
acted by Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Patch Darragh, Jane Gabbert, Ann Cusack, Molly Hagan
presented by Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow Pictures
rated by the MPAA: PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language
running time: 93 minutes
by Bill Stamets
Subtly designed, “Sully” is a disaster film that never over-dramatizes the five-minute flight of US Airways flight 1549 on January 15, 2009. Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki instead dwell on how the event was scrutinized by the National Transportation Safety Board and sensationalized by New York City television. The outcome is commonly known: 155 passengers and crew survived an emergency landing on the Hudson River after Canada geese jammed the jet’s two engines.
What’s original in this drama’s design is how the plot interpolates varied audiences in the saga. “Sully” opens with the voice of air traffic controller Patrick Harten (Patch Darragh) at La Guardia Airport radioing “Cactus 1549, runway 4, clear for takeoff” to the cockpit of a Charlotte-bound Airbus. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III (Tom Hanks) confirms: “Cactus 1549, runway 4, clear for takeoff.” That exchange sets up the rapport between viewers and characters that structures the rest of the self-reflective narrative– “Sully” and Sully take off together.
Ironically, that controller will be the last one to know the pilot and everyone else on board survives. Right after flight 1549 breaks radio contact at 15:30:43.7 and drops off his radar screen, Harten removes himself from his post, presumably per tower work rules. He sits alone in a windowless room to process his shock. Only later does he discover what all his co-workers know from monitoring live news. Sully’s first call is to his wife Lorrie (Laura Linney) in the kitchen of their California home. “I’m OK,” he tells her. “What do you mean?” she replies. “Turn on the television,” he explains.
“Sully” was released two days before the 15th anniversary of four commercial passenger jets– commandeered by Al-Qaeda terrorists– crashing on September 11, 2001. “Hey, no one dies today,” a first responder assures a shivering passenger. In the fortuitous aftermath of flight 1549, one of Sully’s colleagues points out: “You know, it’s been quite a while since New York had news this good– especially with an airplane in it.” On September 11, 2016 Eastwood told the New York Times: “New York was still in shock from 9/11 and everything else. That particular time in history [January 15, 2009], New York was in a bit of of a depressed state. This thing was something people could hang on to as a happy-ending story.”
“We had a miracle on 34th Street– I believe now we have had a miracle on the Hudson,” Governor David Paterson told New Yorkers that day, invoking the title of the 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street.” Within the hour “Miracle on the Hudson” would be the tagline for the feel-good news item. Four days before the inauguration of the 44th president, gino55 posted on the New Jersey news site NJ.com: “Shouldn’t we be counting this as Obama’s first miracle? I’m thinking we should!!! The messiah is already at work…”
For the record, “miraculous” never appears in the 196-page NTSB report titled “Loss of Thrust in Both Engines After Encountering a Flock of Birds and Subsequent Ditching on the Hudson River…” The engines “ingested” Canada geese whose remains were confirmed by mitochondrial DNA tests and stable hydrogen isotope analysis, and Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab comparing feather samples from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
Acknowledging the bird strike and its aftermath rank as “a movie-worthy moment in aviation history,” the independent federal agency informed the media: ”The NTSB was not asked to contribute to or participate in the production of ‘Sully’ and as such we were not afforded an opportunity to ensure our actions and words were portrayed with accurate context or reflected our perspective.”
“Sully” recalls Eastwood’s last drama, also a salute to an American hero. “American Sniper” (2014) is based on “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History,” written by Chris Kyle with two co-authors in 2012. “Sully” screenwriter Komarnicki draws on the 2009 autobiographical account “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters” by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, who helped Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her astronaut husband write “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.”
The structure of “Sully” is entirely Komarnicki’s. Three scenes revisit the flight itself. One starts with Sully buying a sandwich in La Guardia prior to take-off. Another shows the aftermath. Once safely ashore, he presses for a passenger count and waves off the mayor’s flacks attempting to stage a photo op. The plot largely spans that January day and a handful that follow, as Sully and Jeff attend NTSB hearings in New York City. (The real public hearings took place June 9-10 in Washington, D.C.)
We also see Sully imaging alternate outcomes for flight 1549– via a nightmare in his hotel room and a daylight vision that grips him as he gazes out the window of a high rise. There are no survivors in these tragic scenarios. Sully shrugs off post-traumatic counseling. He goes jogging around Manhattan.
Other plot elements are two flashbacks to turning points in Sully’s career– as a teenager and later as an Air Force pilot. He tapes an interview with NBC’s Katie Couric and turns up on NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman” with his flight crew. Komarnicki also places five calls between Sully and his wife in the storyline. Televisions playing breaking news are another recurring element. However, the dramatic crux of “Sully” arrives in the third act when the NTSB screens simulations of flight 1549. What alternate outcomes could have arisen after the bird strike?
Eastwood modulates tension when recreating the incident. Don’t brace for the impact of “Flight,” directed by Robert Zemeckis in 2012. Its fictional pilot appears before a NTSB board too. The real-life source of that script’s technical details, if not outcome, was Alaska Airlines flight 261 on January 31, 2000. No one survived its crash landing off the California coast. Nor does the Hudson River landing in “Sully” build the hold-on-to-your-seat suspense of the snowy Andes landing in “Alive,” Frank Marshall’s 1993 screen dramatization of the October 13, 1972 Chilean crash detailed in the book “Alive! The Story of the Andes Survivors.” Aviation film completists will note a fleeting scene of a B-17 landing on a Pacific shore in “Air Force,” directed by Howard Hawks in 1943.
On the outside, Sully is a consummate pro. His only request of the hotel manager is to dry-clean his uniform for his debriefing. On the inside, visibility is low. One sign he’s rattled: almost stepping into traffic on his first Manhattan jog after landing. Lifelong attention to detail surfaces when Sully interrupts a NTSB official: “It was not a crash. We knew what we were doing. It was a forced water landing.” And, to be clear, he landed his A320 “on the Hudson” not “in the Hudson.”
According to NTSB transcripts of cockpit voice recordings, the real Sully said on that day: “we’re gonna be in the Hudson” and the La Guardia controller relayed to his supervisor: “I think he said he’s goin in the Hudson.” The film is true to one detail redacted from the official transcript: Sully says “birds,” which is followed by “[sound of thump/thud(s) followed by shuddering sound]” and then first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) says “oh shit.” (NTSB transcribers uses “#” for “Expletive” and “@” for “Non-Pertinent word.”)
“Everything is `unprecedented’ until it happens for the first time,” points out Sully, annotating an NTSB official who used “unprecedented” to characterize flight 1549.
The audience foregrounded for most dramatic effect in “Sully” is the one at the public hearing to determine the cause of the accident. Everyone in that room already knows the actual outcome on January 15, 2009, just like everyone in audience at a “Sully” screening who remembers news reports or saw Warner Bros. Pictures’ trailers. Making their video premieres within the film are simulations streamed from the Airbus Training Center in Toulouse, France. A cockpit cam shows experienced pilots sitting in a flight simulator as they encounter identical parameters of engine damage, altitude, fuel level, wind speed, etc. in order to second-guess real-time decisions by their counterparts on the original flight.
“I don’t not like being in control of the process,” Sully tells his first officer.
The proceedings feel stacked against Sully and Jeff. In 20 computer simulations their aircraft reaches a runway for a safe landing. “Engineers are not pilots,” complains Sully. “They were not there.” He urges, “If you’re looking for human error, make it human.” Then the NTSB uses real pilots. They succeed in returning to La Guardia and a nearby New Jersey airport. But the board is forced to admit they had 17 practice runs.
“I cannot quite believe you still have not taken into account the human factor,” states Sully, as if pleading his case in open court. “These pilots were not behaving like human beings, like people who were experiencing this for the first time.” Since “there was no time for calculating,” he wants a new round of simulations. Adding a 35-second delay to the pilots’ response time will make their time frame more like what Sully and Jeff faced. The pilots now crash into city buildings before reaching airports.
The disaster is only virtual, of course, for both viewers inside the film watching a simulation on a video screen and those of us watching from the outside on the big screen.
At this point the “Sully” audience at the Chicago preview screening I attended did something atypical. Many applauded. Not to questionably cheer a catastrophe in Manhattan with hundreds of deaths. But to show solidarity with Sully. An understatement of vindication. “Does anyone need to see any more simulations?” asks the NTSB chair. Another round of applause. This audience also clapped when Sully earlier got confirmation that all 155 aboard were accounted for. I credit Eastwood, Komarnicki and Hanks for crafting such an impact at the multiplex.
“Sully” parlays the `this-is-like-a-movie’ trope discreetly. “This is so surreal,” muses Sully, taken aback by the media attention. “I guess I’m having a little trouble separating reality from whatever the hell this is.” When he gets an impromptu hug from a stranger, he’s at a loss: “What just happened?” Sully is spotted in a nearly empty bar. The TV is on. A clip of you-know-who is on the news. The bartender finds it all too “unreal” and has a comic epiphany: “Sully’s here and he’s there.” One of regulars chimes in: “He’s everywhere!”
Television can make an icon in less than a news cycle, and the internet can do so even sooner. “Sully, watch the news– you’re a hero,” explains Lorrie. “The whole world is talking about you.” “I don’t feel like a hero,” he insists, once again weighing a word choice. “I’m just a man doing a job.” Now retired as a pilot, he has a gig as CBS News Aviation and Safety Expert.
The echo style of lines passed between cockpit and tower– “Cactus 1549, runway 4, clear for takeoff”– repeats in later lines of dialogue. “We did our job,” Sully assures Jeff, who affirms, “We did our job.” “Tell me it’s almost over,” pleads Lorrie over the phone. Enough with the camera crews on the front yard. Sully obliges with, “It’s almost over.” Here the soundtrack parallels the visual mirroring via TV screens and NTSB videos.
“Sully” evolves into an inquest into the ineffable. Why flight 1549 lost thrust in both engines is no mystery but Sully’s inner calculus eludes investigators. They want more than: “I eyeballed it.” The chair concludes the hearing by thanking Sully: “Remove you from the equation and the math fails.”
Online truth-seekers go beyond the obvious. The Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry debunks the supernatural spin of “Miracle on the Hudson” on one site. A paranoid one peddles “The Deep Semiotics of Flight 1549.”
Beneath the film’s surface lays a message. Komarnicki brings up a sentiment he heard from his former pastor from Belfast: “Never set sail to a fear, knowing that all seas are the seas of God and even if you sink, you sink only deeper into Him.” In an interview posted by Reel Faith the screenwriter observes: “This is a good news movie that reminds us there’s something deeply beautiful and unselfish within us as human beings that we can access through grace and sometimes by pure instinct of how we were made.”