Imagine being judged on 208 seconds of your life. This is what happens when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a mild-mannered, cool-as-a-cucumber commercial airline pilot, managed to avert a spectacular disaster with some even more spectacular fast thinking. The image of US Airways Flight 1549 sitting splayed, yet intact, on the chilly January-cold Hudson River next to the skyline of Manhattan was one for the ages, especially as all of the 155 shivering passengers (memorably waiting for rescue by standing clustered on the watery wings of the floating plane) survived.
It was truly a great American story, a GOOD plane story for New York City just 8 years after the very BAD plane stories of 9/11. It is unsurprising that cool-as-a-cucumber director Clint Eastwood wanted to put this American hero on the big screen, and who better to play such a man than Tom Hanks. Both director and actor are a perfect fit, both showing controlled restraint; Hanks with his character, and Eastwood with his efficient direction.
In the aftermath, when the media was still swooning over the “Miracle on the Hudson”, Sully was going through his own personal hell, dealing with the required investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Normally used to investigating crashes where there are no survivors, the NTSB found themselves in the unusual position of not only having all the data to review, but having Captain Sully and his first officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) around to answer questions. As portrayed in the film at least, the NTSB were practically villains of the moustache-twirling variety, proclaiming that not only could the plane have made it safely to an airport, but maybe only one (rather than both) of the engines was disabled from the bird strike right after takeoff.
It may be tricky to play a guy who is so reserved, so unflappable, but it should come as no surprise that you can’t take your eyes off of Hanks. If Sully is anything like Hanks portrays him, I would totally fly with him anytime. His 40 years of experience, and his genuine concern and responsibility for his passengers and crew comes through in his eyes and his demeanor. When Sully is called a hero by Katie Couric, he subtly, but noticeably squirms with discomfort. “I don’t feel like a hero,” he says calmly, getting slightly blinky. His only worry for himself is that those 208 seconds will overshadow his entire career.
What was an efficient, 208-second flight makes for an efficient, solidly captivating film. There is some fluff and filler, like a couple unnecessary flashbacks, and a thankless supporting turn by Laura Linney (with phone in hand in every scene) as Sully’s wife. And I’m not sure I would gain anything new from the film by a second viewing. But Eastwood has wisely kept the story lean, without fireworks, and without embellishment. The story itself, as we all know it, is powerful just by its sheer existence, making this film one to watch.
Hear from the real “Sully” Sullenberger, First Officer Jeff Skiles, and air traffic controller Patrick Harten in “Moment by Moment: Averting Disaster on the Hudson”. Also included are a behind-the-scenes featurette “Neck Deep in the Hudson: Shooting Sully” and a short biography piece “Sully Sullenberger: The Man Behind the Miracle”, featuring Sully, his family, and Skiles.