The first clue lies in the movie’s tagline: “The Untold Story Behind the Miracle on the Hudson.” Aha! So there’s more to this than the simple tale of courage and human decency that we saw in the news media. And that is the direction in which Eastwood seems intent to steer us. First, we witness the story with which we are all familiar. (As it happens, we’ll get to witness parts of it twice more over the course of the movie’s slender 96-minute running time.) But then we go, as they say, behind the scenes.
Following the crash—or, as Sully likes to correct folks, the “forced water landing”—the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) launches its required investigation. And what they find does not seem to jibe with Sully’s version of events. He says that both engines cut out following the collision with a flock of geese; the flight data say that one engine was still operational. He says that there was no way the plane could have made it to landing strips at LaGuardia or Teterboro; subsequent simulations suggest that both airports were comfortably within range.
Could it be that far from the courageous savior he was immediately and universally proclaimed to be, Sully was in fact reckless and panicked? No less eminent a jury than Katie Couric appears on television to weigh the question of whether the suddenly famous pilot was “a hero … or a fraud?”
Now, if you’re like me, at this moment in the film you’ll find yourself mildly discombobulated: Did Katie Couric really say that? I certainly didn’t remember there being any public controversy over whether or not Sully had done the right thing. And that is, of course, because there wasn’t any. Moments after Couric raises doubts about his competence on air, Sully jolts awake. It was only a nightmare! Remarkably, Eastwood’s movie offers up this lazy narrative device not once, but twice.
Which is the essential problem with the whole film: The “untold story” of the Miracle on the Hudson turns out to be exactly the same as the oft-told story, except with some implausibly venal NTSB investigators thrown in. (Indeed, complaints have already been lodged regarding the NTSB’s absurd portrayal in the film.) The only way Eastwood can think of to surprise us is by making up stuff that didn’t happen and then lodging it in Sully’s nightmares. Indeed, the character might inadvertently be speaking for Eastwood himself when he explains, “I’m having a little difficulty separating reality from whatever the hell this is.”
And that’s pretty much the movie. After initially presenting Sully as the hero we all believed him to be, it very, very unpersuasively argues that maybe he wasn’t a hero after all—before finally concluding that actually he was an even bigger hero! Following perhaps the silliest (Sulliest?) “courtroom” scene in recent memory, even the obnoxious NTSB officials (thanklessly played by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, and Jamey Sheridan) reverse themselves and belatedly recognize Sully as a Great American. You’ve heard of straw men? This is a straw movie.