Movie Review: Sully (2016)
I get it. Director Clint Eastwood needs to frame the drama of US Airways Flight 1549’s emergency landing on the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009—the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson”—around a larger drama in order to keep us riveted. And he chose well. We are riveted. But throughout we suspect the framing device is a lie.
“Wait, so government officials immediately attacked the actions of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), the veteran pilot who managed to land the Airbus A320 onto the Hudson without making it: 1) break apart, and 2) sink? The world saw him as a hero who saved 155 lives but regulators at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were giving him the stink eye? Causing him to wander around New York City full of doubt? Making him feel bad about himself?
No, not really.
Here’s a question: Is it a framing device in service to Clint Eastwood’s libertarian, small government point of view?
In the movie, the NTSB argument against Capt. Sullenberger is this: Computer simulations, given the circumstances of Flight 1549—geese flying into both engines, knocking them out, as it was ascending after takeoff—were able to make it back to LaGuardia. Oh, and one of the engines wasn’t out anyway. Nice going, jerkface.
The NTSB argument in real life is: That’s bullshit.
Yes, there was an NTSB inquiry into the forced landing but it occurred six months later, and they came to praise Sully not sully him. In fact, according to William Langewiesche’s book “Fly By Wire: The Geese, the Glide, the Miracle on the Hudson,” the hearing was rather dull business. What tensions there were, were mostly buried. The movie makes a passing reference to Sully’s website to drum up business but not really why he has to do that. It doesn’t mention that his salary had been cut drastically in the years before 2009. Nor does it mention that the salary of his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), had been cut so much—by 50 percent!—that he'd had to take a weekend job in Wisconsin.
Engineering vs. pilot experience was another buried issue at the actual hearing:
[The Airbus engineers] knew that the airplane’s flight-control computers had performed remarkably well, seamlessly integrating themselves into Sullenberger's solutions and intervening assertively at the very end to guarantee a survivable touchdown. The test pilots believed that the airplane's functioning was a vindication of its visionary design. But they were not going to bring it up. They were going to get through this hearing and be done.
In the hearing, Sully did say the following: “No matter how much technology is available, an airplane is still ultimately an airplane. The physics are the same. And basic skills may ultimately be required when either the automation fails or it’s no longer appropriate to use it.” Some aspect of this is preserved in the movie. But in the movie it’s more of a knock against the computer simulators, and the government officials who expect pilots to act with computer precision. In the movie, it’s about adding the human element to allow for error, or delay, which is an interesting argument when you think about it.
I.e., You don’t get hit by birds and immediately head back to base. You assess. Then skills and experience come into play. And once the simulations are recalibrated to into account the human factor, everyone realizes that Sully’s instincts were right after all. The prosecutors become fans. Like the rest of us.
The movie ends oddly on a joke by Skiles. He's asked if, knowing what he now knows, would he would do any of it differently? Yes, he says; I’d do it in July. People laugh. Sullenberger laughs. You could freeze-frame on that shot and it would seem like the ending of a 1980s sitcom. Like “Bosom Buddies,” maybe.
Tom Hanks is great, by the way. He’s the show. He has to be both emotionless (cool under pressure) and full of emotion (caring about the passengers), and he pulls this off like the pro he is. He’s the man to play our complicated heroes.
Except this Sully isn’t that complicated. There’s doubt in his eyes, sure, but about what? That he did screw up? Or that they’ll try to pin something on him? It seems the latter. Once he gets in front of the NTSB he’s as cool as a cucumber. Doubt? Gone. Which is a shame. I liked the doubt.
We never see him truly interact with his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney, in her third Clint Eastwood movie), who remains stuck to a wall phone in California while he is feted in NYC. Isn’t she younger than him? Isn’t he a bit old to have pre-teen kids? What’s the story there? There’s no story there. Not here.
One of my favorite bits is when the crew winds up on “Letterman,” and Hanks, who has obviously been on “Letterman” and television forever, makes Sully seem more awkward on camera than the real Sully actually was. Good acting by both men.
That’s the kind of hero we want to believe in: the one who does the job but isn’t comfortable in the spotlight. And that’s the hero that Eastwood gives us. The real Capt. Sullenberger is apparently comfortable in both arenas. Good for him. The airlines cut his pay but he got a $3 million advance from HarperCollins for his story. Good for him. But you can’t frame a movie around a man hiring a powerful west-coast publicity firm. Someone has to be the villain. Eastwood made it government regulators. Which, yes, suits his libertarian, small government point of view.