On January 15th, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles landed a U.S. Airways plane filled with 155 people on the Hudson river. It was an unprecedented water-landing, thus coined the “Miracle on the Hudson.” After 24 minutes—the course of the landing and rescue—Sully was named a hero to New York and the rest of the U.S. However, the crash was only the beginning. Sully may have saved his entire plane, but his career was almost taken away from him after.
“I had over 40 years in the air, but in the end I’m gonna be judged on 208 seconds.”
-Tom Hanks, Captain Sullenberger
Sully (2016) portrays the surreal experience of the “Miracle on the Hudson” from not only Sullenberger’s perspective but flight attendants, passengers, air-traffic control, and the N.Y. Waterway rescue crew. The film begins with Sully’s nightmare of Flight 1549 where in his dream the plane does not safely land on the Hudson, but crashes into a New York sky scraper. The dream cuts to Sully waking up, and the audience is immediately thrown into the situation after the landing. Director Clint Eastwood integrates the real footage of the landing smoothly as the audience watches the aftermath unfold “live” with Sully post-rescue. The following morning, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) begins their investigation about the landing by questioning Sully and Skiles. Did Sully make the right decision in crash-landing on the Hudson? Sully did not follow protocol so the NTSB was trying to make sure Sully truly had to make a crash-landing on the river. Instead of the handbook, Sully operated on instinct.
“If he’d have followed the damn rules, we’d be dead.”
— Aaron Eckhart, Officer Jeff Skiles
We follow Sully in his journey defending his reasoning behind the water-landing and ultimately are posed with the question, “did Sully do the right thing?”…It’s indirectly our chance to decide for ourselves. We are right alongside Sully through everything: every interrogation, every interview, every flashback, every moment. After the NTSB break for the day, Sully and Skiles are surrounded by the press, their union representatives and admiring New Yorkers. When Sully isn’t in the spotlight, he’s calling his wife at home—where they share their intimate moments throughout the film over the phone. When he wasn’t surrounded by people, we watch Sully suffer as he is grappling with the flight–breaking the flight down in his brain, questioning his instinct in landing on the river, and struggling to grasp reality.
“I want myself back.”
— Tom Hanks, Captain Sullenberger
Mid-way through the investigation, Sully has a flashback to the “incident” (as he calls it) in its entirety. From boarding, to pre-flight instructions, the bird strike, the landing, and the rescue—we are put back in that moment with Sully. We also experience the flight from other points of view as well. Because, this isn’t the story of one pilot who landed a plane on a river. It’s the story of 155 people—each with their own experience—all thinking they were headed to Charlotte, but instead who survived an unprecedented crash landing. We watch a mother and daughter, father and son, a scared husband, a new mother and her infant child, all experience this crash as well.
Interestingly, the audience watches many clips of the crash throughout the film. While on the surface it may look redundant, I believe there is power in the “redundancy” because every time we—as audience members—experience the flight, Sully does too. It is aan accurate representation of how people re-live traumatic events after they happen. They don’t simply go away after the first time. Sully recounts the moments again and again—even to the point where he has nightmares of the plane crashing into buildings.
Eastwood takes us back to Sully’s time as a younger pilot where—at that point—he had over 4,000 hours of time in the air. We also see Sully’s beginning stages of flying…but none of those 19,000+ hours in the air mattered after the Miracle on the Hudson. He was judged by those 2 minutes out of Laguardia.
The investigation only takes a few days and the NTSB brings multiple entities into one room to make the final decision on the investigation. Based on multiple simulations, “expert” opinions and evidence, the NTSB believes the left engine was idle, not dead, and that the plane could have landed on a nearby air-strip. However, Sully brings up the human aspect of the miracle—one that no computer can take into account. After re-working the simulations, the pilots proved they could not safely land on the air-strip, they would have flown straight for a building. Sully was correct: he could feel the engines go and the only option was to brace for impact and have a crash water-landing. The entire room fell silent, the NTSB understood their faults…and Sully and Skiles were regarded as true heroes.
I loved this film. A lot. Understanding the controversy around Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks, I still believe Eastwood (and the rest of the crew) creatively depicted this 24 minute event and its aftermath. Part of the NY Waterway rescue was the actual rescue team from the event.
As I was sitting in the theater, I felt the most stress from a non-thriller film I think I’d ever experienced. Really…as passengers were jumping from the planes doors to the rafts or edging along the wings—avoiding the 36-37 degrees water, I was as tense as I usually am in a “disaster” movie. But, then I realized, this is was something similar to a “disaster” movie, only real life. There wasn’t intense music in the background, it was 155 people stranded in the middle of a river on a freezing day hoping to be rescued and shocked they survived. Once everyone was rescued, Sully asked for an official headcount of all his passengers and crew and tears formed when he was told everyone was safely rescued: all 155 survived. Tears swelled up in Sully’s eyes and tears swelled up in mine. (I think that had to partly be because I love to watch Tom Hanks cry – try watching him cry and not cry in response, try it.)
Sully is a great film that will leave you both stressed and relieved at the same time. It will leave you thanking every crew member, rescue team and passenger. It will leave you thanking Captain Sullenberger. I know Eastwood films are prone to promote American heroism and Sully definitely does—but I believe it is a film worthy of being watched because it is about one day–that could have been a very dark day in history – but ended up being a miracle.