This account of the “Miracle on the Hudson” of January 15, 2009—when Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed his US Airways flight in the river after a bird strike shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia had knocked out both of the plane’s engines, and none of the 155 people on board lost their lives—has the virtues one associates with Clint Eastwood’s movies. “Sully” is poised, technically polished and unfussy. But it also shares the common failings of his films, being a mite flat and bland. Still, it could be argued that the very plainness of the picture, anchored by a predictably solid but unflashy performance by Tom Hanks, is the appropriate way of celebrating a man who saw himself not as a hero but simply a fellow doing his job as best he can.
Todd Komarnicki’s script, adapted from the book that Sullenberger wrote with Jeffrey Zaslow, uses the National Transportation Safety Board hearings on the incident as a framing device, employing the committee’s investigation and computer-generated simulations to challenge the captain’s split-second decisions about how to proceed when the emergency occurred. Was he correct in concluding that both engines had failed, although data suggests that one might have been restarted? Was his choice of attempting a dangerous water setdown the right one, or could he have safely maneuvered the aircraft back to LaGuardia, or to an alternate landing site?
And it’s not merely the NTSB committee members—played by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan—who question Sullenberger’s actions; it’s the pilot himself. Much of Hanks’s performance is devoted to Sullenberger’s soul-searching. Did he misread the data? Was he too quick to dismiss other possible action? In trying to save the passengers and crew, did he actually place them in greater danger, even though things had turned out well? He has nightmares about how the flight could have crashed into buildings and is genuinely bothered by evidence that doesn’t jibe with his recollections. Sullenberger doesn’t assume a defensive crouch as the investigation proceeds.
Eastwood, Komanicki and Hanks do a good job of portraying not only Sullenberger’s integrity in facing the NTSB investigation but the heroism he exhibited in ensuring that all the passengers and crew had been evacuated before leaving the sinking aircraft. The film also proficiently depicts the efforts of first responders in getting out to the plane and taking the survivors to safety, and the contributions of the supporting cast—particularly Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles—are fine, if merely functional. (In that connection, though, it’s unfortunate that Laura Linney, as Sullenberger’s wife Lorrie, is stuck with such a thankless part; she’s confined to the couple’s home—and to talking to him worriedly over the phone—throughout.)
Those husband-wife conversations are among the “present time” sequences that are punctuated with flashbacks to the accident that culminate in a full-scale recreation, well executed by the craft crew in a fashion that has a semi-documentary feel. The concluding NTSB sequence, in which the team’s original conclusions are altered when they’re challenged to reconfigure their computer-based simulations by adding a reasonable assessment of “the human factor” to the elements included in them, isn’t handled as clearly as it might be; and the ending is very abrupt—something that’s actually characteristic of Blu Murray’s editing, which keeps the film to a trim 96 minutes, far shorter than most, if not all, of Eastwood’s previous pictures. Still, Murray preserves the deliberate, even solemn pacing that is the director’s hallmark.
That rhythm, combined with Hanks’s basically po-faced performance—a pretty good facsimile of the real Sullenberger’s laid-back, undemonstrative persona—means that “Sully” isn’t as exciting as it might have been. Even the crash scenes don’t aim at providing a standard Hollywood adrenaline rush. Some viewers might be disappointed at that; the film might be described as contemplative rather than action-oriented. But that too fits in with the Eastwood’s desire to present the story as a quiet affirmation of Sullenberger’s professional competence, a tale of “ordinary” heroism rather than the rah-rah variety. The result may not set your heart beating, but it should cause you to think about how close Sullenberger came to being blamed for acting improperly on the day when his fast reaction saved a great many lives and, as one character says, gave New Yorkers—and the entire nation—reason to cheer an incident involving a plane in the Big Apple after more than seven years of recalling what had happened on 9/11.