In January 2009, a US Airways flight that had just lifted off from LaGuardia collided with a flock of geese that took out both its engines, and the plane began losing altitude over the Bronx. The veteran pilot, Captain Chesley Sullenberger, decided that the plane would never reach an airport runway in time and instead staged a perfect water landing on the Hudson River, from which the passengers and crew were rescued. A crisis that might have ended with 155 people dead instead resulted in no loss of life, and was hailed worldwide as “the Miracle on the Hudson.” What incredible material for a movie!
But as Clint Eastwood’s Sully proves, the Miracle on the Hudson is actually lousy material for a movie. The event drew saturation coverage, so anyone older than 12 years of age probably remembers what happened that day; when the passengers are screaming and texting their loved ones, you know they’re all going to survive. Sullenberger became a national hero and now serves as an aviation consultant for CBS News; when the National Transportation Safety Board tries to nail him for bad judgment, arguing that he could have made it back to LaGuardia, you know he’ll be exonerated in the end. That leaves screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, who adapted Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty, without much dramatic tension available, aside from the flashes of noble self-doubt that cause Tom Hanks, as Sully, to frown and stare off in the distance.
That must be the reason Komarnicki revisits the hair-raising flight no fewer than four times—once when it’s actually happening; twice in Sully’s imagination, where the plane flies into a building and erupts into a giant fireball; and yet again when Sully and his copilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), are defending themselves at a heavily attended NTSB hearing. Like American Sniper, Eastwood’s previous feature, Sully is mainly an exercise in deification, mining our common cultural experience for the sort of stoic men of action the director plays so well onscreen. After the two pilots have cleared their names at the hearing, one of the investigators (Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad) asks them if they would have done anything differently. To the crowd’s warm delight, Skiles squeezes off a perfect make-my-day rejoinder—”I would have done it in July”—and Eastwood abruptly fades to black. At least he spares us a high five and a freeze-frame. v