Chesley Sullenberger is the reason computers will never take over the world. He’s exactly the sort of hero Clint Eastwood would set his sights on– another man who casts a long shadow over the techno-driven world. Eastwood has directed Tom Hanks as SULLY the pilot who made the miracle landing on the Hudson after a flock of birds crashed into his plane leaving him only HIS wings and wits to save all 155 aboard. Most of us know the tale, but this exceptionally rational and exciting movie tells the story behind that story, of what happened during and after those fateful 208 seconds, when an avalanche of media attention and an unsparing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) came crashing down.
Most of us probably remember where we were on January 15, 2009 when the breaking news flashed across our screens with those impossible images: people looking like they were standing on water in the middle of Manhattan, but were in fact standing on the wings of a semi- submerged US Airways jetliner that had just made a “water landing” in the middle of the Hudson River. It was the first instance I can ever recall where seat cushions might actually have been used as flotation devices.
Captain Sullenberger instantly became a hero; drinks were named after him (Grey Goose and a splash of water!) paparazzi, appearances on late night TV, and impromptu romantic proposals followed, along with “the shakes” and nightmares, and alternative scenarios the NTSB suggested were possible. Their calculations and simulations show Sully could have, might have, should have landed the plane safely at either of two other nearby airports.
Eastwood begins his film there, in a fog of doubt; in one early scene, we find the steam from a shower swirling about Sully in a towel second guessing himself in the half light of speculation about the validity of his decision-making. In the life and death moments before he touched down on less than solid ground, did Sully do the right thing? Make the right moves? Follow procedure? No matter everyone lived. Might they have lived those moments better had they not gotten their feet wet?
The movie circles round and round these questions filling in context, detail, letting us know the passengers just a little: the mother and her baby; a young man and his dad making the flight breathless within seconds; a daughter and her wheelchair-bound mom; the flight crew joking about the futility of taking off on time from LaGuardia (the only way to do it is to leave from JFK.). Admittedly, some of this feels too deliberate, but by the time they’re all on board, inflight, and in trouble (within just 3 minutes of take off) we feel invested, and more fully grasp the terror they must have felt, the frigid air and water temps, the immediate and visceral gratitude for the pilot who ushered them from the sky and death to their baptism in the Hudson.
Hanks has given better performances– he is visibly reined in and “acting” here, but he comes trailing a heap of all-American goodwill by way of a string of heroic Oscar winning/nominated performances; he looks like Sully, tall, white-haired and trim, projecting Sully’s calm, his character, professionalism, humility, his dedication to doing his job with no need for thanks. Remember when people didn’t need to be thanked for doing their jobs?
As we brace for impact, Eastwood shows us these moments from many points of view. We circle back to the actual event three times and I held my breath each time though I knew how it ended. The last time we catch glimpses of the frightened faces of people looking out of windows from buildings with a view of the river, seeing what they saw: a plane coming in too low, a plane that looked like a missile, a plane like another plane 15 years ago that tore through buildings seeking death, not an escape. (The film’s release on this particular weekend is no accident and a remedial coda on that haunting date.)
The movie builds slowly to its climactic showdown, technocrats vs. the solitary man who flew the plane sans engines, with the help of a loyal co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart who wears his faithfulness lightly with humor). The last scenes elicited cheers from my audience. Stay for the credits and know that Eastwood never takes his eye off the real hero–Chesley Sullenberger– who in the film’s climax, delivers a simple and eloquent defense of all that is human, leveling the playing field in the search for human error.
No doubt, the movie is a tad “square,” the byplay too self-conscious, the dialogue a tad too pointedly righteous. But the issues the film and the event raise in the ongoing battle between warm-blooded humans and the increasingly sophisticated machines they create–is important, and the denouement more than satisfying– uplifting. This time, the humans won.