Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” is the story of a commercial jet that sustained catastrophic engine failure and yet landed safely in the Hudson River with little more damage than wet clothes and ruined itineraries.
Its focus through this story is the pilot, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played by Tom Hanks.
Opening hours after the crash (Sully bristles at the term “crash,” noting it was a “forced water landing”), the film flashes back to it throughout the next days of Sully’s experience. It’s a whirlwind — birds ruin his jet’s engines, he’s an instant celebrity, he’s deeply disturbed by the experience, he’s under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board for possible ineptitude.
For necessary dramatic purposes, an investigation that took over a year unfolds in a few days. The board is skeptical of Sully’s decision to land in the Hudson, with simulations claiming an airport landing was possible. But Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were there, and they know that engine failure gave them just one workable option.
Shot beautifully with melancholy blueish hues, “Sully” is nonetheless an emotionally upbeat work. The crash sequences are handled with an eye for realism, saving the manufactured drama for the investigation. Dialogue dense with pilot terminology reinforces the authenticity as Sully and his co-pilot have 208 seconds to diagnose engine failure and execute an emergency landing.
Eastwood quietly reveres Sully, as well as the plane’s crew and New York City first responders. There’s an especially powerful moment when Sully, told that he’s the reason everyone survived, shares the credit with everyone who did their jobs. Eastwood and Hanks take material that could have easily been TV movie-level and make it essential big-screen viewing, a warm, culturally relevant American success story.
It’s rare that true stories like this — disasters that end with everyone walking away — are told so well. Audiences tend to find a deep connections to real-life tragedy, but there’s a place for hope, too, and Eastwood has found it.