Most Americans have nothing but fond (if faint) memories of the January 2009 “miracle on the Hudson,” when U.S. Airways pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger managed to land an Airbus jet on the surface of the icy Hudson River after a collision with a flock of geese just after takeoff disabled both the plane’s engines. The pilot’s four decades of flying experience, along with his uncommon ability to keep cool in a crisis, wound up saving the life of every one of the 155 people on board. As for Sully himself, a modest and reserved fellow with an upright military carriage and a neatly combed snow-white mustache, he might have come straight from Frank Capra–era central casting. For a while after the incident, his image and self-effacing interview soundbites were everywhere, and at the end of that year, when Time magazine compiled a list of influential “heroes and icons,” Sully’s name was No. 2, second only to then-new-to-the-job first lady Michelle Obama.
For all these reasons, a lightly fictionalized re-enactment of Sully’s remarkable feat of aviation seems like both an obvious and an unusual choice of material for the 86-year-old Clint Eastwood. As a filmmaker, Eastwood has long displayed an interest in the brave and hypercompetent male American hero. But it’s the myth of that hero he’s spent his career exploring: In Unforgiven, Flags of Our Fathers, and American Sniper, to name just a few of the many films he’s devoted to the subject, Eastwood has catalogued our country’s obsession with creating and then destroying (or being destroyed by) idealized figures of masculine prowess.
Sullenberger would seem an odd addition to the Eastwood pantheon of conflicted and struggling antiheroes. Isn’t Sully, of all the lionized male figures in recent American history, among the most … unsullied? How does Eastwood propose to complicate our understanding of such an unobjectionably menschy protagonist, much less build suspense around the re-creation of a emergency landing we already know will turn out not just OK but miraculously well?
This is the biggest dramatic problem Eastwood’s Sully has to solve at the outset: the foregone-conclusion factor. The amiable, taciturn Sully (Tom Hanks) and his equally upstanding co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) have zero work to do to win the audience’s approbation, given our knowledge going in that these guys saved a planeful of people from a horrific death. This isn’t Flight, the Robert Zemeckis film in which Denzel Washington played a self-sabotaging top-notch commercial pilot who, after landing a plane in scarier circumstances than Sully faced, turns out to be concealing a chronic alcohol and drug problem. The most ethically questionable act we ever see Hanks’ Sully engage in is … now that I put my mind to it, I can’t even think of one. I guess a good company man ought not to call his adoring wife (Laura Linney) on the clock, but even that seems forgivable, given that he’s passing on the information that he survived an emergency touchdown that’s all over the TV news?
Given Sully’s built-in dramatic handicap, it seems even stranger that Eastwood chooses to begin his film (which was adapted by Todd Kornacki from the pilot’s own book about the event, co-authored with Jeffrey Zaslow) only minutes before the ill-fated Flight 1549 takes off from La Guardia airport for Charlotte, North Carolina. If this thing kicks off in medias res, we think, where the hell is there left to go? But in an effective if overfamiliar opening twist, the flight we’re witnessing turns out to be Sully’s PTSD-induced nightmare. In this dream version, the plane never makes it all the way to the river but plows into the corner of a Manhattan high-rise before exploding in a sickeningly familiar plume of skyward-rising smoke.
We’ll see the last 208 seconds of Flight 1549 several more times, revisited from different characters’ points of view (the pilots’, the passengers’, the air traffic controllers’) and again, near the movie’s end, in elaborate computer simulations created by the National Transportation Safety Board in an attempt to fathom what went wrong that day. This investigative committee—a lineup of mistrustful bureaucrats played by the likes of Mike O’Malley and Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn—are the closest Sully gets to having actual antagonists. Unless you include the battles Sully wages within himself as, stranded in a New York hotel until the investigation is complete, he broods over the near-disaster, running it over and over again in both dreams and waking life. Were the board’s investigators right in their claim that he could have diverted to a nearby airport, thereby sparing his passengers and crew a traumatic experience (and his airline a significant insurance loss)? But there’s a limited dramatic weight to Sully’s Hamlet-style self-recriminations, given that the audience knows full well our hero will be vindicated. It’s Sully! It’s Tom Hanks, for Pete’s sake!
Sully can feel like a dutiful, hagiographic slog, even though its actual running time barely tops 90 minutes and both Hanks and Eckhart give warm, understated, funny performances in the only two roles developed enough to qualify as real characters. Brief flashbacks take us back to Sully’s first piloting lessons as a teenager and, later, through his years of wartime service. There are even painstaking re-creations of those briefly ubiquitous news photos that showed the evacuees from Flight 1549 awaiting rescue on the wings as the plane’s body slowly sank into the icy water. And how many times can we watch this honorable but beleaguered man comfort his anxious wife on the phone, then beg her leave to go re-explain to a bunch of desk-bound fools that leadership looks different when you’re 3,000 feet in the air and dropping fast?
Still, Eastwood is a graceful enough filmmaker to cut the story of the crash into overlapping temporal slices that eventually cohere into a multisided view of a single event. For example, watching from inside the cockpit as the captain tersely advises his crew and passengers to “brace for impact” feels completely different, and way more frightening, after we’ve witnessed the effect of this unexpected PA announcement on the plane’s occupants, some of whom take a break from bracing to type goodbye texts to their loved ones.
Sully’s musical soundtrack—co-composed, like most of Eastwood’s scores, by the director—is at times intrusively sappy, especially when an unfortunate female vocal part keens wordlessly over the main piano theme. Hanks’ and Eckhart’s performances, both models of nuance and emotional restraint, make clear that whatever that wailing lady is doing on the soundtrack, she’s not expressing the inner experience of either Sullenberger or his co-pilot. Maybe the singer is there to give voice to the only victims of the crash landing who didn’t live to tell about it, and whose point of view even Eastwood’s prismatic reconstruction of the event leaves unexplored: the geese.