Review: ‘Sully’ – Please Keep Your Seat Belts Fastened During the Movie

‘It's not a crash. It's a forced water landing.’

A US Airways Airbus at LaGuardia

A US Airways Airbus at LaGuardia

By Jonathan Spira on 12 September 2016
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In a moment rare in New York City cinemas, a rapt audience kept silent during a 96-minute film (with the exception of a few appropriately timed chuckles), didn’t stir during the credits, experienced a water landing and an NTSB investigation, clearly happy to exit the theater having survived.

Opening in theaters just days before the 15th anniversary of the September 11 attacks replete with imagery of passenger planes crashing into buildings, “Sully” tells the back story of the Miracle on the Hudson, the US Airways flight that safely landed using the Hudson River as its runway with no loss of life and few injuries.

Lauded by passengers who were on Flight 1549 on January 15, 2009 as “accurate” and “realistic,” the biographical drama, directed by Clint Eastwood, stars Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a pilot who, along with First Officer Jeff Skiles (portrayed by Aaron Eckhart), takes off on a clear winter day from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. While discussing mundane matters such as where to eat when they land in Charlotte, barely three minutes into the flight the two encounter something “no one has ever trained for”: The Airbus A320 ingests a flock of Canada geese and the bird strike disables both of the narrow-body plane’s engines, leading to a complete loss of thrust.

Relying on his 40 years of experience (he was 14 months away from retirement at the time), Sully does his job well and his experience kicks in, despite the lack of training for, as he put it, landing on – not in – the Hudson. He instinctively turns on the auxiliary power unit, not attempting to follow the checklist, which calls the switching on of the APU as one of the last steps. That move restored power to flight systems and allowed the aircraft to remain in “normal” mode.

Eastwood does his job well too, building suspense as NTSB investigators launch an inquiry into the crash in a manner far more adversarial than the original investigation had been, putting Sully and Skiles in the position of having to defend the water landing versus attempting a return to LaGuardia, something that simulations later showed would have ended with catastrophic consequences.

Sully and his first officer are sticklers for accuracy. NTSB: “Our job is to investigate how a plane ended up in the Hudson River,” which Skiles pointedly corrects to “On the Hudson River.” Sully also admonishes the investigators who called the landing a crash: “It’s not a crash. It’s a forced water landing.”

Mr. Hanks is the consummate pilot, sporting white hair, an Air Force-style mustache (Sully had been a captain in the Air Force), and exuding a calm and professional manner even when the plane is floating down the river. He doesn’t raise an eyebrow after telling air traffic control that the plane had lost thrust on both engines, something the controller doesn’t comprehend at first. “Which engine did you lose?” “Both. Both engines.”

The movie ebbs and flows between calm and edge-of-your-seat, the calm of the cockpit going through the checklist ends dramatically when the captain makes a terse announcement: “This is the captain. Brace for impact!” followed by the terrifying and accurately rendered commands by the three flight attendants in unison: “Brace! Brace! Heads down! Stay down!”

The accident, given that it was less than eight years ago, remains in many people’s consciousness and undoubtedly all of the moviegoers in the audience saw Sully on television that fateful day in January. They probably also saw him as an honored guest at the inauguration of President Barack Obama shortly after the incident, being given the key to the city by Mayor Bloomberg, and they likely read about his retirement flight in March 2010.

What the film and Eastwood do really well is to reflect on the drama and trauma of being a hero and being thrust into the spotlight. Katie Couric: “People call you a hero.” Chesley Sullenberger: “I don’t feel like a hero.”

But Sully really is a hero, both to the world and to his family and especially to the 154 other people on that plane. “I want you to know, I did the best I could,” he tells his wife, Lorraine, played a bit too generically by Laura Linney. “Of course you did,” she replies. “You saved everyone. There were 155 people on that plane and you were one of them.”

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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