The new film Sully is about several different things.
Most obviously, it’s about what has come to be known as the Miracle on the Hudson. On January 15th, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 had just departed from New York’s LaGuardia Airport when it was struck by a flock of geese. (They say that it was specifically hit by Canadian Geese but I refuse to believe that Canada had anything to do with it.) With both of the engines taken out and believing that he wouldn’t be able to get the plane back to either LaGuardia or an airport in New Jersey, the flight’s plot, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his plane on the Hudson River. Not only did Sullenberger manage to execute a perfect water landing but he also did so without losing a single passenger.
I’m sure that we can all remember that image of that plane sitting on the river with passengers lined up on the wings. We can also remember what a celebrity Sully became in the days following the landing. At a time of national insecurity and cynicism, Sully reminded us that people are still capable of doing great things. It also helped that Sully turned out to be a rather humble and self-effacing man. He didn’t use his new-found fame to host a reality TV show or run for Congress, as many suggested he should. Instead, he wrote a book, raised money for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and appeared in two commercials for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Wisely, Sully opens after the Miracle on the Hudson, with Sully still struggling to come to terms with suddenly being a celebrity. (That said, we do get to see the landing in flashbacks. In fact, we get to see it twice and it’s harrowing. The “Brace! Brace!” chant is pure nightmare fuel.) Tom Hanks plays up Sully’s modesty and his discomfort with suddenly being a hero. Even while the rest of the world celebrates his accomplishment, Sully struggles with self-doubt. Did he make the right decision landing the plane on the Hudson or did he mistakenly endanger the lives of all the passengers and crew members?
A lot of people would probably say, “What does it matter? As long as he succeeded, who cares if he actually had to do it?” Well, it matters to Sully. Some of it is a matter of professional pride. And a lot of it is because the soulless bureaucrats at the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating Sully’s landing. If it’s determined that he could have made it back to airport and that he unnecessarily endangered the lives of everyone on the plane, he could lose his job and his pension. As we see in a few scenes with Sully’s wife (Laura Linney, who is somewhat underused), the Sullenbergers really need that pension.
That brings us to another thing that Sully is about. It’s a celebration of not only individual heroism but individuality itself. The NTSB claims that they have computer-generated recreations that prove Sully had enough time and fuel to return to an airport but, as Sully himself points out, the NTSB has ignored the human element in their recreations. As a result of their obsession with regulation and procedure, the bureaucrats have forgotten that planes are not flown by computers but individuals who have to make split-second decisions.
That’s one of the things that I loved about Sully. In this time when we’re constantly being told that our very future is dependent upon always trusting the bureaucrats and following their rules and regulations, Sully reminds us that the government is only as good as the people who work for it. And, far too often, the people are smug and complacent morons.
(For the record, Sullenberger has said that the real-life hearings were not as confrontational as the ones depicted in the film. However, even taking into account the dramatic license, the overall message still rings true.)
And finally, Sully is a film about what America has become in the wake of 9-11. Just as in real-life, the film’s Sully suffers from PTSD in the days immediately following the Miracle on the Hudson. Even while the rest of the world celebrates him, Sully has nightmares about what could have happened if he hadn’t made the landing. When we watch as Sully’s plane collides with a New York skyscraper, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the horrible images of September 11th. Not only does it drive home what was at stake when Sully made that landing but it also reminds us that, regardless of what some would want us to beg, there are still heroes in the world. Not every story has to end in tragedy. People are still capable of doing great things. Heroism is not dead. With tomorrow being the 15-year anniversary of the day when 3,000 people were murdered in New York, Pennsylvania, and D.C., it’s important to be reminded of that.
Sully is a powerful and crowd-pleasing film. (The normally cynical audience at the Alamo Drafthouse broke into applause at the end of the movie.) Director Clint Eastwood tells this story in a quick, no-nonsense style. During this time of bloated running times, Sully clocks in at 97 minutes and it’s still a million times better than that 150-minute blockbuster you wasted your money on last week. Toss in Tom Hanks at his best and you’ve got one of the best films of the year so far.