The remarkable images of the Airbus A320 jetliner floating on the Hudson River with passengers standing on its wings were beamed all over the world after Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549, made a forced water landing following engine failure in January 2009, saving everyone on board.
The incident and its aftermath are the subjects of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film Sully, a biographical drama that takes a moving look at the ‘miracle on the Hudson’ and its impact on the life of the man who made the memorable landing.
The story at the core of the movie is an account that we’re all familiar with. Soon after taking off from La Guardia Airport, the ill-fated aircraft hit a flock of geese. The bird strikes disabled both engines, leaving Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) with limited options. After realising that they did not have the power, speed or altitude to return to the airport, Sullenberger decided to ditch the plane in the Hudson.
His incredible landing, combined with a swift rescue effort by ferries and responders thereafter, managed to save all the 155 passengers and crew on the flight.
This well-known incident forms the basis of the plot, but that is just part of what Sully is about. The film’s primary focus is on the aftermath of the episode. Sullenberger is left with recurring nightmares about the event and its worst case scenario, and even though he is being lauded as a hero by the media and public, he is also being scrutinised by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – led by investigator Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley) – who think the plane could have made a safe landing at an airport.
Hanks delivers an absolutely stellar performance as the (immensely likable) Sullenberger, and is supported by a terrific cast, which include a moustached Eckhart and the lovely Laura Linney who portrays Sullenberger’s wife, Lorraine.
A lot of the credit for how impressive the film is goes to Eastwood, who does a solid job bringing the horror of the emergency situation to life – the depiction feels surprisingly unnerving even thought we already know how things will turn out – while creating an intense atmosphere as the pilot faces sudden, overwhelming attention and deals with the hearing that could end his career.
As with most films based on real events, the drama has been amped up by fictionalising some aspects of the story, primarily the elements and personnel of the NTSB investigation which have been depicted as overly hostile in the film, but this extraordinary story didn’t need distracting exaggerations, and a gentler approach would have been much more effective.
Ultimately, Sully is a bright spot in an otherwise lacklustre summer. Even though unnecessary fictionalisation occasionally detracts from the fascinating, well-made drama, the film remains captivating from start to finish, thanks to Eastwood and Hank’s efforts as well as the amazing story at its centre of a compelling, unassuming hero.
Rating: 4 out of 5