There aren’t many feel-good stories in the world in which we live. It’s a sad fact of modern life that most of the news we hear is bad, and even events that can be considered triumphs by some have a downside for another group. In January 2009, America got an honest-to-God miracle, and an authentic hero. No qualifications, no asterisk, nothing but one of the most amazing stories in aviation history put the right man in the right cockpit to save 155 lives in a spectacularly-executed water landing of a passenger jet on the Hudson River. Over seven years later, the event dubbed “The Miracle on the Hudson” is a feature film helmed by director Clint Eastwood with Tom Hanks portraying the man in the pilot’s seat for the incredible hair-raising flight: Captain Sully Sullenberger.
US Airways Flight 1549 was supposed to be just another routine run from NYC’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, NC and then on to Seattle. Just another flight in Sully’s 42-year career behind the stick of various aircraft. Less than three minutes into the flight, the plane was hit by a flock of Canadian Geese that completely destroyed both engines and essentially turning the Airbus into a glider. If you’re unfamiliar with the geography of the NYC area, the Hudson River separates NYC from the Newark, NJ area. It’s one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Sully was given clearance from both LaGuardia and New Jersey’s Teterboro airport to make an emergency landing, but he determined that the only course open to him was to attempt a water landing on the Hudson. The wind chill that day was -5 degrees Fahrenheit. The water temperature in the thirties. Any water landing that put passengers in the water for an extended period of time would have resulted in extensive casualties. Skillfully landing the plane and joining the crew in evacuating the passengers onto the wings and inflatable emergency ramps (Sully himself was the last person off the plane, only after making two additional sweeps looking for stragglers), Sully was met by lightning fast response from NYC’s ferries, NYPD, Coast Guard, and a host of emergency responders. There were a few injuries, only two of which required overnight hospital stays, but not a soul was lost. I can write that out, but here’s a mix of simulated and real footage with the actual CVR (cockpit voice recorder) of the crash so you can get an idea of what an astonishing feat this was:
The temptation in Sully would be to try to over-glamorize something that was already astonishing as is or make Capt. Sullenberger into something more than the quiet, reserved, professional, dignified man he is. The triumph of the film, to me, is that the star of this film is the crash. Hanks’ portrayal of Sully is true to what I’ve seen of the man in interviews. He’s not glamorous or flashy. He’s a professional pilot who took the lives of his passengers very safely. He’s humble and soft-spoken; not the sort of things that make up a Hollywood star. But, I think, that’s why everyone identified with Sullenberger and hailed him: he was one of us. Yes, his job was more high-profile than those of us sitting in cubicles, but to him, this was him doing his job. Eastwood and Hanks give you pieces of the flight from the very beginning of the film, but it’s not until the finale that you see the entirety of it from the viewpoint of passengers, crew, ground control, and bystanders. Sully is a brief film at 90 minutes; it tells its story tightly, with enough human angles to lend perspective. The narrative device used to drive the crash is something I was unaware of, the tremendous pressure exerted on Sully and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) by US Airways and the NTSB, claiming Sully could have easily made it back to New York or New Jersey and the water landing had been unnecessary.
I viewed the film on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and that context needs to be kept in mind in watching the movie. This occurred just over seven years after the attacks on the World Trade Center, and what could have been more devastating than another passenger plane, for whatever reason, hitting a populated area in that same city. Eastwood has received some criticism for shots of planes crashing into buildings as Sully replays the events over the Hudson, questioning himself and his actions, but how could he not be thinking of that worst case scenario? Those were the stakes, you had densely populated metropolitan areas to each side and the Hudson River. He makes the water landing wrong, at best, he suffers significant passenger casualties. He gambles on either side of the Hudson going for an airport, and he may end up plowing another passenger jet into the New York skyline. It’s difficult to even imagine stakes that could have been higher.
Clint Eastwood, at age 86, has made one of his best films, lending just the right touch to a story that needed little embellishment. Tom Hanks brings the same subtle strength and realism to his portrayal of Captain Sullenberger, and Aaron Eckhart and Anna Gunn, among others, round out a strong ensemble. This is really the first big picture of the fall and it delivers in every way, and I strongly recommend people get out and see just what a miracle this truly was.
PS – For what it’s worth, I got the FULL Sully experience as coming out of the theater, my brother’s car experienced complete engine loss at 0 feet, and we rode home from the theater in a tow truck. For those who want to know more about the actual event, under the film’s trailer below I am including a 45-minute documentary on US Air Flight 1549.