Clint Eastwood’s Sully is a movie with an interesting challenge: It’s a disaster movie about a disaster that wasn’t, with a central crisis that occupied just a few short minutes of real life and ended happily for everyone. Eastwood is telling the story of US Airways Flight 1549 and its captain, Chesley Sullenberger, who coolly steered his plane into the Hudson River after a bird strike and landed smoothly enough on the frigid water that every passenger survived. It’s a justly famous story — but is it story enough?
The answer is: not quite enough to make a good movie, but enough to make an often riveting one. Eastwood and his screenwriter fill in a story around the water landing that raises questions about Sully’s heroism and judgment. It turns out that maybe he and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) could have made it safely back to LaGuardia or forged ahead to Teterboro, and that the Hudson splashdown was therefore a form of pilot error. Or so argue a clutch of suits from the National Transportation Safety Board, who grill Sully in between appearances on Letterman and suggest that, while he may have saved 155 passengers and crew, it was also his fault they were endangered in the first place.
Since Sully is played by Tom Hanks, and since everyone knows that the real Sully was never anything but a hero, there isn’t a lot of suspense generated by this inquisition narrative (one that, the NTSB insists, is a gross embellishment of what really happened). We’re supposed to believe that it filled Sully with self-doubt, and the movie supplies many scenes of Hanks, under white hair and sporting the Sully ’stache, furrowing his decent brow and staring into the distance, or having pained conversations with his wife (Laura Linney) about their financial situation and future, or having bad dreams in which Katie Couric denounces him on the hotel TV set.
But the NTSB inquisition is so implausibly hostile, its conclusion and Sully’s vindication so foregone, that this narrative never becomes compelling or — to anyone who lived through the real Sully’s apotheosis — particularly believable. When the man of the hour goes fretfully through the dark streets of New York City, or worries about whether he and his wife will be able to afford their mortgage payments after this, the scenes can’t quite escape the tug of unintentional comedy.
What the narrative does more successfully, however, is provide a mechanism through which Eastwood can visit, revisit, and re-revisit those fateful few minutes above and then beside Manhattan. And the chance to be repeatedly immersed in such a remarkable escape is what the Sully audience is there for, and why the film is doing gangbusters at the box office. Sully’s dark night of the soul occupies too much of the movie without being powerful or convincing. But his miracle has power enough to be riveting every time we watch it, and Eastwood is wise to give us that chance over and over again.
So we see what Sully did from different angles — through the eyes of a few representative passengers, through the eyes of the air-traffic controller who thinks he’s lost a plane, through the eyes of the ferryboat captain and other rescuers who got there in time to pluck all 155 flyers safely from the frigid. Then, finally, when Sully gets his day in bureaucratic court, we get the cockpit perspective, start to finish, from the thumping shock of the birds to the final splashdown.
All these angles are effective. We get to imagine ourselves as passengers — listening to the flight attendants’ terrifyingly synchronized bark of “Heads down! Stay down!” — facing death for an instant and then being delivered and scrambling stunned onto the wing. We get to be amazed anew at the pilots’ very Eastwoodian sort of heroism: men of honor doing a hard job well. And we get to experience the almost-crash with New Yorkers who witnessed it firsthand, as the plane drifted past their towers and sank toward their river — watching horror transformed into inspiration, tragedy into the miraculous.
What this last angle conveys — as, a little too heavy-handedly, do a few Sully hallucinations of planes crashing into buildings — is the extent to which the United 1549 landing was the anti-9/11. It had the same setting, the same heroic rescue workers, the same uncanny, dreamlike quality: a plane diving toward the Manhattan skyline, a plane where no plane is supposed to be.
Except that instead of Mohamed Atta there was Sully, and this time everyone came out alive.