There are hundreds of extraordinary acts, moments, and feats every year, and not all deserve their own movie, perhaps least of all one that covers a time period of roughly four minutes. I am nevertheless glad that Sully was made.
Granted, to fill the 95-minute runtime, Sully had to pad, and there are a number of flashbacks and nightmare sequences that the story could have done without. Nevertheless, there’s an amazing six-minute sequence buried in the middle of this movie, and another hour that’s well worth watching.
Clint Eastwood — who doesn’t even know what a millennial is because he’s still busy yelling at the baby boomers to get off his lawn — is a good guy to take on the story. He’s an efficient storyteller, and unsentimental in his approach, allowing Tom Hanks’ measured, understated performance as Captain Chesley Sullenberger and the event itself do all the heavy lifting.
The story is simple. Guy goes up in a plane. Plane hits birds. Guy guides his plane to a forced water landing in the Hudson River. Everyone lives. Hooray! It’s bookended, however, by an unnecessarily dramatic NTSB investigation in which a group of bureaucrats try to suggest to Sully — based on flight simulations — that he could’ve steered the plane safely back to LaGuardia airport instead of downing it into the drink. Those simulations don’t take into account an actual human being operating the plane, of course, and it was that actual human being who saved 155 “souls” that January day in 2009.
The best part of the movie is the flight itself, and we get to experience it twice during the film — it’s harrowing and intense, and it feels authentic. It’s that intensity that heightens the minutes before and after the crash, as passengers board the plane in an airport and evacuate in the middle of the freezing river. The most powerful emotional moment, however, may have been when Sully called his unsuspecting wife (played by Laura Linney) to tell her that he survived an incident she wasn’t yet privy to. In fact, the movie might have benefited from a few more of those moments, had it dispensed with the NTSB framing device and instead given more time to a handful of passengers, who almost certainly made similar phone calls to unsuspecting loved ones to tell them they were still alive.
That movie would’ve been called Flight 1549 instead of Sully, though, and I understand why Eastwood chose the approach he took. But it’s not just a movie about Captain Sullenberger, and what makes the entire event so extraordinary, really, is the fact that 1200 first responders, helicopter pilots, medical personnel and Coast Guard employees came together to work as a team to ensure that these 155 people Sully saved from a crash-landing were also rescued from the freezing waters of the Hudson. As much as it’s about Sully, this is a movie about what happens when everything in the wake of a crisis works just exactly as it should to prevent a four-minute event from turning into a tragedy.
It really is a remarkable, low-key story, and while I might have fidgeted through the first half hour, the details of what happened that day and the heroism of a man who was just doing his job made Sully more than a worthwhile endeavor.