Sully review: Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks bring ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ to the screen

Tom Hanks in Sully
Tom Hanks as pilot Chesley Sullenberger III during the evacuation of the plane in Sully

Sully is the latest film from director Clint Eastwood, who at age 86 is still at the top of his game.

The movie is about how veteran commercial airline pilot Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger III, played sympathetically by a stiff upper-lipped Tom Hanks, pulled off the “Miracle on the Hudson” in the frigid winter of 2009.

The unfussy retelling mostly hits the right notes. It was filmed primarily on location in New York adding to the film’s satisfying realism, and its brisk 90-minute length makes for a snappy and entertaining viewer experience

Universally known by his nickname Sully, the film tells how the experienced pilot managed to safely land an Airbus 320 with 155 passengers and crew aboard on the Hudson River between Manhattan and New Jersey after a flock of geese got sucked into the plane’s engines when it was at 28,000 feet, disabling both of them, triggering a rapid descent over the heart of New York City.

Sully’s sang-froid and split-second decision-making over a span of only 208 seconds ended up saving the lives of everyone on the plane and turned him into an instant national hero and international celebrity. His straight-arrow demeanor, silver-haired good looks, and articulate way he described the experience instantly won over the press and the public.

The challenge for Eastwood was how to keep the audience absorbed while retelling a story that is still a vivid event seven-a-half years later with a suspenseful but happy ending that is known in advance.

The solution Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarniki came up with was to interweave short scenes of the river landing with other parts of the story, waiting until near the end to cinematically unfold the entire climactic sequence. That is followed by a rescue operation by New York City’s first responders.

Helicopters and a small flotilla of boats arrived on the scene almost instantly, and went to work hauling some people out of the freezing waters of the Hudson and bringing the many passengers standing on the wings of the slowly sinking airplane to shore.

The other stroke was casting Tom Hanks as Sullenberger. The actor, working with Eastwood for the first time, convincingly plays the role of yet another Everyman who gets pulled into a perilous situation and survives with dignity and aplomb, taking charge and saving the lives of others.

Tom Hanks in the cockpit in Sully
Tom Hanks as Sullenberger and Eckhart as his co-pilot Jeff Skiles in the skies over New York

In recent years Hanks has made a specialty of playing real life characters. In Captain Phillips, he was the eponymous skipper of a giant cargo ship attacked by pirates off the coast of Africa. And last year he was attorney Richard Donovan in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, where he was recruited to negotiate and carry out the exchange of high-level U.S. and Soviet espionage agents during the height of the Cold War

As Sully, a grey-haired Hanks not only manages to look like Sullenberger but credibly conveys the character of the upstanding airline pilot who has to deal with the press crush in the aftermath of his miraculous landing.

He also must constantly telephone and calm his wife, played by Laura Linney, who feels virtually imprisoned in their home by a feeding-frenzy of clamoring reporters outside and a squad of satellite news trucks surrounding the suburban house.

The film also provides a look at Sully’s inner turmoil. He’s beset by nightmares, dreaming he has crashed the plane into one of Manhattan’s towering skyscrapers instead of putting it down safely on the Hudson.

Adding to the variety and look of the movie, Sully jogs all over New York at night, often with his co-pilot on the flight, Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart, in order to relieve building anxieties in advance of a government safety panel hearing that he fears will second guess him and possibly taint his reputation.

The hearing before the National Transportation Safety Board is a key part of the movie. But it has stirred controversy because it appears to veer from what actually happened, in an effort to inject some dramatic tension in what would otherwise be an unalloyed feel-good film.

Tom Hanks running in Sully
Hanks as Sullenberger running in a bid to relieve his fears ahead of the NTSB hearing

The members of the panel are seen as inquisitors engaged in an adversarial witch hunt that’s trying to pin blame on Sully for not having returned the plane to a nearby airport instead of landing it on the Hudson.

Sully must convince the panel that despite simulations that show an airport landing was possible they didn’t take into account the human factor. In a kind of Capraesque Mr. Deeds Goes to Town moment Sully comes out triumphant.

The reality truth is that the NTSB conducts fact-finding hearings, not adversarial proceedings like the one in Sully. Having at one time been an aviation journalist and occasionally covered the NTSB, I immediately felt something was a kilter watching these scenes.

The NTSB is one of the most highly regarded agencies in the government, for the careful work it does in trying to analyze an airline incident in order to understand what if anything can be learned that will improve safety in the future.

And sure enough, members of the panel have come forward in the last few days to complain that the NTSB was unfairly characterized, and the final report from the proceedings did indeed paint a different picture of what went on.

This is not the first time a Hollywood biopic has played around with the facts to make the plot more enticing — or acceptable. It’s often par for the course. But since Sully is being promoted as “the untold story” about the Miracle on the Hudson, it’s unsettling that part of the untold story isn’t as true as the rest of the film, which seems punctilious in its adherence to reality.

Hanks and Eckhart in the NTSB hearing in Sully
Hanks as Sullenberger and Eckhart as Skiles during the NTSB hearing in Sully

Eastwood has responded by disputing that the NTSB sequence was hyped. Sullenberger has been less vociferous. He wrote Higher Duty, the book the film is based on, and it describes a far less adversarial proceeding than the one in the movie.

He did, however, have concerns that his reputation was up for grabs. “I’ve got 40 years in the air, but in the end, I’m gonna be judged on 208 seconds,” he says.

Most audiences won’t care about the NTSB controversy or even know about it, and just accept what they see — it makes the film more interesting if there’s a villain in it attacking the saintly Sully.

But biopics like Sully and many others have a certain impact that has always made me a little bit queasy, because of the power of mass media.

These films become the definitive story for now and into the future. For all too many people all they know about the events in someone’s life comes from seeing a film about them over anything else that has ever been written on the subject.

Sully is a fine movie, and likely to be well received by moviegoers who are looking for something of substance after a summer of movies mainly aimed at juveniles. And it fills that bill.

But it’s a shame Eastwood had to sully the reputation of the NTSB to make what he felt would be a more riveting film.

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