Directed by Clint Eastwood, Sully stars Tom Hanks as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who won international recognition for his successful emergency water landing on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. Adapted from Sullenberger’s 2009 autobiography Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, Sully is ostensibly a biographical drama about the now retired pilot. In reality, aside from two brief flashbacks and the occasional phone conversation between Sully and his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), the film is concerned exclusively with the character’s role in the events of US Airways Flight 1549 and the National Transportation Safety Board investigation that followed. Eastwood’s decision to focus on a single incident and its aftermath rather than tell a comprehensive life story resulted in a film that is more strangely structured and compelling than your average biopic.
Rather than attempting to play coy over the outcome of such a well-publicized and recent event, Eastwood wisely establishes from the outset that all 155 passengers and crew aboard the A320 that Sully was forced to land on the Hudson after multiple bird strikes resulted in a total loss of thrust in both engines survived. The film opens a few days after January 15th with its titular character already being hailed as a hero by the media. In spite of this, Sully appears tense and troubled when we are first introduced to him. He’s suffering from symptoms of PTSD, including recurrent, hauntingly vivid nightmares of a commercial passenger jet crash landing in midtown Manhattan, overwhelmed by all the media attention and unable to return home to his family until the NTSB investigation is complete.
When Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) meet with NTSB investigators played by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and James Sheridan, things get worse. Doubt is cast upon Sully’s claim that the aircraft experienced a total loss of thrust in the left engine as well as the right and simulations of the incident suggest that Sully could have safely landed at either LaGuardia Airport or Teterboro Airport. The investigators seem determined to prove that Sully unnecessarily endangered the lives of the passengers and crew by landing on the Hudson, which would mean he was also at fault for the resulting damage to the aircraft. We learn during one of Sully’s phone calls home that if they succeed he will be forced to immediately retire without pension, and since the couple are already struggling with mortgage payments this will likely result in them losing their home.
Sully remains calm in the face of increasingly combative and hostile questioning, politely but firmly insisting that he took the correct course of action. His poise under pressure in these interrogation scenes is impressive, but it makes all the sense in the word once you witness the character’s superhuman stoicism in the face of losing thrust in both engines while flying a passenger jet over one of the most densely populated areas on the planet during the film’s extended flashback to the events of January 15. Knowing the outcome does little to lessen the suspense of the forced water landing sequence, which is electrifying from the moment the bird strike hits right up until the last passenger is evacuated from the ditched aircraft and hoisted aboard a coast guard vessel.
Undoubtedly Sully’s strongest stretch, this sequence does have the unfortunate side effect of making the NTSB investigation storyline feel far less urgent when the film returns to it in the final act. Eastwood still manages to craft a satisfying ending for his hero, but there’s no question that the director’s thrilling and occasionally surreally beautiful recreation of US Airways Flight 1549 is the real reason to see the film. Tom Hanks is excellent in the lead role, giving an understated but commanding and thoroughly convincing performance as a veteran pilot with more than four decades of experience and a remarkable ability to maintain his composure in the most stressful of circumstances. He is also ably supported by actors like Molly Hagan, Ann Cusack, Max Adler, Sam Huntington, Christopher Curry, Autumn Reeser and Patch Darragh, who all do tremendous work in small roles playing flight attendants, passengers and air traffic controllers.