Magazine | October 10, 2016, Issue


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.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Politics & Policy


Trade or the Trade Establishment? Robert D. Atkinson’s “Four Myths about Trade” (September 12) are almost correctly stated; which is to say, incorrectly stated. “The first assumption is that America is the ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ Honestly, the thought of her becoming president makes us feel a little faint, too. ‐ Hillary Clinton abruptly left a 9/11 commemoration at Ground Zero, stumbled off a curb, and ...

Crass Couture

Will we look back on Trump's tenure as an era of refinement and elegance because he said “Excuse my French” after he dropped the effenheimer?
Politics & Policy


SOME ANGELS Lying on their backs, looking up at the sky, The boys have made angels in the snow. Eyes to heaven, with heaven looking down, They wave their arms like wings, while seraphs In ...

Most Popular


Angela Rye Knows You’re Racist

The political philosopher Michael Oakeshott said that the “rationalist” is hopelessly lost in ideology, captivated by the world of self-contained coherence he has woven from strands of human experience. He concocts a narrative about narratives, a story about stories, and adheres to the “large outline which ... Read More

What the Viral Border-Patrol Video Leaves Out

In an attempt to justify Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s absurd comparison of American detention facilities to Holocaust-era concentration camps, many figures within the media have shared a viral video clip of a legal hearing in which a Department of Justice attorney debates a panel of judges as to what constitutes ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Pro-Abortion Nonsense from John Irving

The novelist has put up a lot of easy targets in his New York Times op-ed. I am going to take aim at six of his points, starting with his strongest one. First: Irving asserts that abortion was legal in our country from Puritan times until the 1840s, at least before “quickening.” That’s an overstatement. ... Read More
Film & TV

Murder Mystery: An Old Comedy Genre Gets Polished Up

I  like Adam Sandler, and yet you may share the sense of trepidation I get when I see that another of his movies is out. He made some very funny manboy comedies (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy) followed by some not-so-funny manboy comedies, and when he went dark, in Reign over Me and Funny People, ... Read More