When US Airways flight 1549 struck a flock of geese and ultimately wound up in the Hudson river, there was only 208 seconds between take-off and landing. The landing was a forced water landing(don’t call it a crash) that resulted in all 155 people on board walking away unscathed, thanks to the heroism of the flight’s pilot, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger. Considering how quickly this incident was over and how inevitable the eventual happy ending is, it possibly isn’t the best fuel for a feature length film. Despite that, Clint Eastwood’s tightly crafted drama Sully: Miracle on the Hudson manages to build a plot around this one brief incident, exploring the human aspect of this extraordinary moment of teamwork and heroism.
The main thrust of the plot follows the aftermath of the 208 seconds, specifically the investigation into just what transpired on that flight. Though Sully – played, of course, by Tom Hanks – is hailed as a hero in the press and by the general public, the National Transport Safety Board have to investigate why Sully chose to land the plane in the Hudson and not try to make it to the nearest airport. Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) contest that the bird strike knocked out both engines but the data received by the NTSB shows they should’ve been able to make it to two different airports.
While the NTSB are never portrayed as moustache-twirling villains, the film does largely paint them as cold bureaucrats who are spoiling a genuine miracle. It feels slightly contrived, like the film is searching for some kind of conflict, but it does provide an adequate device for reliving the events of the landing itself and those are the strongest scenes in the film. Despite knowing how it will turn out, the film does an effective job of quickly establishing a few of the flight’s passengers and following them through the landing and the immediate aftermath. The result is surprisingly powerful and watching all of these people come together to get out of what could have been a tragic occasion is very moving, highlighting the heroism of not only Sully but also his crew, the passengers and the coastguard.
Though we’ve seen what happened and know that Sully acted in the best possible way given the circumstances, the film works as an exploration of how doubt and guilt can begin to creep in when your actions are questioned. This self-doubt begins to creep in as the investigation progresses, and Sully’s PTSD begins to worsen, with recurring visions of planes crashing into buildings haunting him during every quiet moment. Hanks is of course the perfect person to convey all of this, adding another example of all-American decency to his filmography, possibly the most thoroughly decent of all the characters he has portrayed. It’s a solid and subtle performance that is most reminiscent of his turn in Captain Phillips, though lacks the final outpouring of emotion, instead leaning on more generic speechifying during a climax that feels satisfying if overly clichéd.
With a running time that just scrapes past the 90 minute mark, Sully is definitely a lean film yet there are still points where the thin plot feels stretched. Laura Linney pops up as Sully’s wife but her role consists entirely of a series of phone calls from home while Sully is in New York for his hearing. While these scenes provide a window into Sully’s personal life, they still feel strangely tacked on and Linney is wasted in a thankless role. Hazy flashbacks from Sully’s childhood in Texas, where he learned to fly, are similarly unnecessary and feel like they’ve been dropped in from another film.
Despite these missteps, Sully: Miracle on the Hudson is a gripping and entertaining film of surprising power that pays tribute to the people behind the headlines. It’s a clear and straightforward film that obviously admires its hero but also understands that Sully didn’t do this alone, and regardless of his skill and professionalism it could have still gone terribly wrong. The team effort is crucial here and just as the human element is what ultimately saved those 155 people, it is also what makes Sully: Miracle on the Hudson such a compelling watch.