Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
For no one can anticipate the time of disaster.
Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare,
so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
Neither Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) nor his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) could have anticipated “the time of disaster” when they entered the cockpit of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on that cold January 15 in 2009. And yet within two minutes of their take off a flock of geese knock out both of their jet engines. What the pilots decide next will determine the fate of every one of the 155 people on board—and because of the size of the fully fueled Airbus 320, possibly an equal or greater number of people on the ground.
Clint Eastwood’s taut docudrama, his 35th feature as a director, is the shortest of all his films, clocking in at 96 minutes. It is based on the autobiography, Highest Duty, co-written by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow. Tom Hanks deftly plays the kind of hero that Jimmy Stewart or Gregory Peck once portrayed—modest, unassuming, and supremely calm and skillful at doing his job under pressure. He is the kind of captain every one of us wants when we board a plane and place our lives in his hands. (I write “his” because according to what I could find out, only a little over 4% of commercial airline pilots are women—and I could find no mention of one rising to the rank of captain.)
The film starts with Sully and Skiles in their Airbus coping with the failure of the engines. The plane veers away from the Hudson River to head back to LaGuardia, from which it had taken off. The pilots cannot get the plane to rise above Manhattan’s skyscrapers. They do manage to dodge some buildings, but the descending airliner still crashes into a lower building, creating a huge fireball. Suddenly Sully wakes up. This is one of several bad dreams he will suffer throughout the film.
We think we know the story of the airliner setting down on the Hudson River, the incident called “Miracle on the Hudson,” but this film fills us in on the tense period when the pilots were being interrogated by officials of the National Transportation Board. I had no idea that members of the Board, based on computer simulations and opinions of airplane engineers, charged that the pilots had made the wrong decision to risk landing in the river. They not only should have headed back for a LaGuardia runway; they could have reached it to make a far less hazardous landing! Or so the experts claimed—none of whom, by the way, were pilots. While most of the press and public were praising Sully as a hero, his judgment was under fire, with the result that his career and reputation could have been ruined. (The film makes it seem that this period was just for a few days, or weeks at the most, but in reality the investigation lasted for 15 months!)
The film switches back and forth between that fateful day of the takeoff and sessions with the NTB, during which Sully and Skiles are put up in Manhattan hotels. He talks over the phone often with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), who like him, is having difficulty coping with the clamoring horde of media reporters camped outside their suburban home. Victimized by stress syndrome, he continues to have bad dreams related to the landing. He jogs at night, sometimes with Skiles, sometimes alone. Though not recognized in his jogging clothes on the street, in a bar the bar tender and a couple of customers recognize and toast him.
From the first day of the hearing those from the NTB are not so friendly, insisting that their “experts” are right, and he is wrong. As the hearings grind on Sully insist s that he and his staunch supporter Skiles, be able to see all of the details concerning the tests. You might want to stand up and cheer at the conclusion, especially as to who it is that figures that the so-called experts were wrong.
After so many phony super movies it is so good to watch a true story about a real hero. One who faces and overcomes two crises, one while dropping from the sky to possible death, and the other while sitting in a hearing room, listening to charges that could ruin his life. While Googling this hero’s name I came across a series of quotations from an interview with him in the Wednesday, February 18th, 2009 issue of the magazine Air & Space Smithsonian:
“My view of the world is that people are best served when they find their passion early on, because we tend to be good at things we’re passionate about. I think we also need to find people whom we admire and try to emulate them.”
Good advice. Watch this movie, and you know that director Clint Eastwood has found his man “to emulate.” Thanks to his inspiring film, we all have.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Octobery issue of Visual Parables.