At 3:31 p.m. on Thursday, January 15, 2009, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger famously performed the miraculous crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew aboard.
I can only wonder how many subsequent hours elapsed before Tom Hanks’s agent began fielding calls from Hollywood producers interested in casting him in the role. It’s a part so perfectly tailored for Hanks—dutiful pilot, humble hero, American Everyman—that it would have seemed almost criminal to cast any other actor, akin to Frank Capra sending someone else to Washington in Jimmy Stewart’s place.
But Sully has arrived—directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the protagonist’s autobiography, Highest Duty—and Hanks is right there where he belongs, in the cockpit. In news nearly as good, the perpetually underrated Aaron Eckhart is sitting beside him, in the role of co-pilot Jeff Skiles.
If only the other elements of the film fit together so neatly. As cinema, Sully is a decidedly peculiar enterprise. This is a movie, after all, in which the happy ending is evident from the beginning, a story in which we know that any and all dangers will be averted without harm. (It is in some ways the mirror image of Paul Greengrass’s heartfelt, harrowing United 93.) Where is the narrative tension supposed to come from?
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.
That said, it’s not a particularly bad movie, provided you ignore the ridiculous depiction of the NTSB—why do you hate them so, Clint?—and the fact that Laura Linney is utterly wasted as Sully’s faraway wife, with whom he seems to have had some vague and entirely unexplored marital issues. (Never fear: By the end she, like every other character, recognizes just how amazing her husband is.) The crash itself is handled with understated artfulness—again, we see elements of it no fewer than three times—and Eckhart is, as noted, terrific.
But ultimately this is Hanks’s film. It’s far from his most challenging role (in some ways, it’s a knockoff of his exceptional work in Captain Phillips), but it’s one that suits him to a tee: the portrait of a man who is decent, capable, and almost flamboyant in his humility. If Tom Hanks did not exist, Eastwood would have had to invent him.