On the evening of 15th January 2009, I was with my parents in the living room when the ten-o-clock news came on, and we stared in disbelief at the live images onscreen: a plane floating on the Hudson River, apparently still in one piece. US Airways Flight 1549 had collided with a flock of geese shortly after takeoff from La Guardia Airport in New York City, taking out both engines; with limited time and a very crowded city directly beneath him, Captain Chesley Sullenberger succeeded in bringing the plane down on the Hudson. Nobody on the ground was hurt, everybody on the plane survived, and “Sully” and his crew were hailed as heroes.
Nearly eight years on, Clint Eastwood directs this big-screen depiction of the “Miracle on the Hudson”. I was very excited when I heard about it: not only am I a regular watcher of Air Crash Investigation, but Sullenberger would be played by my favourite actor, Tom Hanks. After previously commanding a spaceship which suffered an explosion, and a cargo ship which was hijacked, he presumably needed to keep up his record for transportation disasters. So today I went to the cinema with my dad to finally see it – and it was absolutely brilliant!
It would be difficult to centre the whole film on the accident itself, given that the whole thing took place over a matter of minutes, so instead Eastwood both takes a non-linear approach and makes Sully himself the focus. The film begins after the incident has already occurred, as Sullenberger deals with the psychological impact of what happened; the sudden attention he’s getting from the media and the public; and the National Transportation Safety Board questioning whether he made the right call, given that his actions were extremely risky and caused the plane to be written off.
At 96 minutes, this is a relatively short film, which feels very compact and well-paced. The story is ultimately quite basic, but the film tells it well and draws strength from its simplicity. It feels steady and grounded, with minimal use of music, but can still be raw and dramatic when it needs to be – such as the opening sequence when Sullenberger dreams of what could have been: the plane crashing horrifically into the city streets. Some people might find it a bit boring, or the flashbacks and the issues discussed repetitive, but personally I didn’t mind at all: I was fully engaged all the way through. The only other real flaw is that the NTSB investigators can come across as overly hostile and antagonistic in their apparent determination to put Sullenberger at fault.
The “forced water landing” (as Sullenberger describes it) is portrayed in a number of flashbacks, depicting the event in fragments and from different perspectives. I was very impressed with how it is recreated: it’s good enough to put the audience right there, experiencing it as it happened, sharing in the alarm of the passengers and the various bystanders. My dad commented in particular on how the violence of the impact really comes across. The relatively dull cinematography is appropriate, given that it’s January in New York City. We also get snapshots of some of the passengers, and other people who were involved: it’s not enough to fully develop them as characters, but that’s hardly necessary – this approach succeeds in emphasising the human element of the event. Indeed, being human is a central theme of the film: Sullenberger becomes an icon overnight even though he always sees himself as a man, just doing his job and with plenty of help from his fellow crew members; and he criticises the NTSB when their computer and simulator-based investigative approach doesn’t sufficiently take human factors into account.
Tom Hanks’s performance in this movie reminds me of how he acted in Apollo 13, as opposed to Forrest Gump or Captain Phillips: it’s a subtle performance without anything especially dramatic, but no less excellent for that, as he truly captures the character he’s playing. Sullenberger, as portrayed by Hanks, is a modest man who cannot see himself as the hero that he has been turned into by everyone else, but it’s not as if everything he’s been through just bounces off him; he is deeply affected, shaken by his brush with death and overwhelmed by the attention he gets, yet he still has the strength to defend his actions when it matters. Aaron Eckhart also does a great job as Sullenberger’s supportive and more outspoken first officer Jeff Skiles, though Laura Linney doesn’t get very much to do as Lorraine Sullenberger, just getting a few scenes talking to her husband on the phone.
In my review of Cinderella last year, I commented on how good it was to see such a positive film amongst the current grittier state of cinema – and I feel much the same way about Sully. One character in the film explains the sheer enthusiasm of the public’s reaction by noting that New York City has been waiting a long time for something good to happen involving a plane. But even several years later, the Miracle on the Hudson is still an uplifting story in troubled times, and this film does justice to both the event and the people involved. Rating: 4.5/5.