I was still living in New York in January 2009 when Chesley Sullenberger landed a commercial airliner full of passengers on the Hudson River.
Landed a commercial airliner on the Hudson River.
Not in. On.
And almost everyone walked away unhurt. A bit cold and wet. One flight attendant got a nasty cut on her leg. We didn’t know that at the time. All we knew was that a goddamn plane had landed on the river and everything was fine.
I will never forget that day. It was like the opposite of 9/11. The whole city was on fire with joy. I am crying again thinking about that as I write this. You couldn’t help but turn to total strangers in the deli or on the bus and shake your heads at each other and laugh in wonder and say, “That was a helluva thing, wasn’t it?” It was the ultimate anti-disaster. It was like we had glimpsed a parallel universe where something terrible had happened, but then the veil of quantum realities lifted and we saw that, no, it had just been an awful dream and everything was fine.
And Sully is the ultimate anti-disaster movie. That sounds like an oxymoron. How can you make an anti-disaster movie? What does that even mean? Who would watch such a thing? (It almost sounds like that Monty Python sketch: “No parrots were involved in an accident on the M1 today…”) Yet director Clint Eastwood — working from a script by Todd Komarnicki (Perfect Stranger), who in turned worked from Sullenberger’s own memoir — has crafted a supremely gripping and powerfully emotional film about, paradoxically, what happens when everything works as it should. When nothing goes wrong even when the shit hits the fan (or birds hit your jet engines). When people are competent and professional, when panic does not reign and calm experience wins. When beautifully designed and exquisitely intricate machinery does not develop a fault on your way to the Moon* but performs as expected. When even bloody bureaucracy runs smoothly and does the job intended.
Sully is a helluva thing.
(*It only just occurred me to as I typed this how much Sully has in common with Apollo 13, including the fact that you really want Tom Hanks at the controls when you find yourself in the middle of an aviation incident that you would prefer not to die in.)
In some ways, this is an anti-Eastwood movie, too. I was afraid, before I saw the film, that the director would turn his propensity for rah-rah, fuck-yeah-America flag-waving (ahem, American Sniper) onto a man who, in the aftermath of the “miracle on the Hudson,” kept insisting that he was most definitely not a hero, no siree, just doin’ my job, ma’am. That could have been a terrible tribute to a man who nevertheless does deserve all the praise that can be heaped upon him. But Eastwood is at his most restrained, even demure, with Sully. This is a film as modest as its hero– er, protagonist. Hell, the movie isn’t even really about Chesley Sullenberger: it’s not a biography of him (which I was also sort of expecting from Eastwood, especially given Sullenberger’s background as a US Air Force officer). The film does not turn the not-crash into a matter of suspense, either. It opens with the water landing — and then returns to it a few more times, to look at it from different angles and in different aspects — so it’s not like it makes you slog through an hour-plus waiting for the big (non)event.
It’s inevitable with the effortlessly affable Tom Hanks (Inferno, Bridge of Spies) as Sully that even the humility of his character will create a vortex of empathy and veneration at the movie’s core. But that’s a side effect, not the intent of Sully, which goes out of its way to make him as human as possible, as human as of course he is. The Sully we all saw on TV in the days and weeks after no one died on his watch seemed very cool and unflappable. The Sully we see here is riddled with doubt about whether he did the right thing — maybe he could have shepherded that plane back to dry land after all — and also haunted by nightmares of how it could have been so much worse: he has a recurring vision of that Airbus not landing comparatively gently on the water but crashing into midtown Manhattan and exploding in the streets. Which is, I suppose, the movie’s one nod toward the disaster flick it could have been. (And thank you, Eastwood, for adding to my own nightmare alt-realities about that day: it actually had not occurred to me before that that day could have gone this much worse. I had imagined, horrifically, a fuselage on fire on the river, people drowning or freezing to death in the midwinter water. I hadn’t thought about something out of an Avengers movie.)
Some have complained that Sully turns the NTSB — the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates all civil aviation accidents in the US — into villains, which they were not in this incident and, you know, never are. But I did not see villainy in the depiction of the NTSB here, though. Much of the film is indeed taken up with the NTSB’s probe into this event, including whether Sully acted too rashly in landing on the river and whether the condition of the plane after the birdstrike that disabled both its engines was as bad as he keeps insisting. And yes, that’s an adversarial process. Maybe the depiction here is more adversarial than it was in real life — I don’t know — and sure, maybe the NTSB officials seem a bit too unwilling to join the ticker-tape parade for Sully. But that’s their job. And if Sully is about nothing else, it is about people doing their jobs — important jobs, jobs at which human lives are at risk — with integrity and rigor and honest dedication, and with full awareness of what is at stake. I don’t look at this movie and see villains in the NTSB. I look at this movie and see people doing what is necessary to keep us all safe when we fly by striving to find out what happened on a bad day so that it does not happen again. Who wouldn’t want that?
One of the perhaps odd things about the not-crash of US Airways Flight 1549 is that, unlike many other airline accidents, whether they get their own film or not, is that it never seemed to have fueled fears of flying or inspired people to claim that they will never fly again. I was actually scheduled to fly to London for a visit a few weeks after the real-life event, and all I could think on that day was not “Oh crap, I don’t want to fly,” but this: “I want that guy flying my plane.” And Sully just reinforces that feeling. (This may be one of those movies about an air accident that won’t be banned from the in-flight movie selection, because it is just so damned reassuring about commercial flight.) Without blowing their skills or competencies up into something unrealistic, Sully is quietly inspiring about the professionalism of the people who wear the uniforms on our planes, not just Hanks’s Sully but also Aaron Eckhart (Bleed for This, London Has Fallen) as copilot Jeff Skiles and Ann Cusack (Nightcrawler, The Informant!), Molly Hagan (We Are Your Friends, Henry Poole Is Here), and Jane Gabbert as, respectively, flight attendants Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh, and Sheila Dail. One of the most striking moments in the film is as the plane is heading for the river, when the flight attendants instruct the passengers to assume the crash position and then shout in unison “Heads down, stay down!” over and over. It’s clearly something they’ve rehearsed, like the spiels about your seat cushion doubling as a floatation device, etc, yet also something that even the most experienced fliers will never have heard. It’s chilling — like, you do not ever want to actually hear this — and yet heartening: these people are so prepared for everything.
It’s truly remarkable how well Sully captures all the mixed emotions of that day in New York, all beautifully modulated between relief and surprise and the discombobulated stupefied delight that comes from a near miss. And it’s truly remarkable how well it honors good people doing a good job, and truly sad to make you realize how infrequently a great movie can get whipped out of that. That needs to happen more often.
viewed during the 60th BFI London Film Festival