2009 seems like a long time ago, but I remember it quite clearly – flipping open the newspaper to an extraordinary picture of a commercial airplane in the water, with passengers standing on its wings. The photo was that of US Airways Flight 1549, which struck a flock of geese shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, disabling both its engines. The captain, Chelsey Sullenberger, made a split second decision to land in the Hudson River instead of flying back to the airport. All 155 passengers on board survived with minor injuries, and Sullenberger was hailed as a national hero. For a couple of months, the story stayed fresh in my mind, but like everything else, slowly faded into the archives of memory.
Until the autobiographical movie, Sully, came out.
Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks, it chronicles the story of Captain Sullenberger and the US Airways 1549 flight crew, both during and after the crash. The incident is told through flashbacks as Hanks, who plays the pivotal role of the Captain extremely well, suffers from intense PTSD visions in which he constantly sees a plane crashing, blurring the line between hallucinations and reality. He struggles to cope under the stress of an investigation by the National Transport Safety Board, which seems determined to pin the crash on pilot error.
I didn’t have expectations going in to watch the film, as I thought it was just another action movie. So when the film opening showed Sullenberger getting ready to face an inquiry (the crash had already happened), I was a little surprised. The movie itself is only one and a half hours long – very short in comparison to the three-hour hold-your-pee-in films Hollywood likes churning out these days – but it keeps you engaged and interested throughout.
We all know the ending to this story: the Captain saves everyone and emerges a hero. For many, knowing the ending ‘spoils’ the movie, but Eastwood still manages to keep the audience wanting to know what ‘comes next’. He is also extremely clever at playing with the timeline. For example, Sully is in a pub, listening to the news of the plane crash, when the scene transitions to vivid ‘recollection’ mode. Suddenly, he is back on the plane, and the engines have just shut down. The passengers are in a panic as Sully tells them to brace for impact. Just before hitting the water, the scene comes back to Sully at the bar, startled out of his reverie.
In an environment saturated with over-the-top action films, sequel after sequel after bloody sequel, and lame superhero comedies, Sully is a refreshing change, precisely because it returns to the classic ‘hero’ roots. Unlike the modern anti-heroes (Deadpool, for example), or bad-ass types, Sully is an old-world hero with a silent but powerful dignity, shown through his actions rather than words. When faced with the inquiry, he is calm and professional, despite the provocation he faces from the board. After landing, Sully is the last to leave the plane, ensuring everyone is safe before he exists. Eastwood employs the theme of good ol’ fashioned heroism to great effect.
Hanks is stoic and radiates a professional calm – the archetypal snowy-haired, kindly father figure – which only he can pull off so convincingly. Sully is not a ‘warrior’, he is an everyday man doing his everyday job, but in the process becomes a hero. You can see his anxiety at being thrown into the spotlight during interviews. You can see the relief flooding his face when he realizes all 155 passengers onboard are accounted for. Heroes are often invincible, capable of amazing feats, but in Sully’s case, it is this very human touch that makes the character, and the film, so relatable.
All in all, a great tribute to an amazing human being, whose quick thinking action saved the lives of many, including himself.