It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood was attracted to the story of Sully. Based on the autobiography Highest Duty by Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and journalist Jeffrey Zaslow it tells the “true” story of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January 2009. President George W Bush who faced the 9/11 incident in his first year, was in his final days of office when another plane crashed in New York but as details emerged, he was relieved to say he was “inspired by the skill and heroism of the flight crew as well as the dedication and selflessness of the emergency responders and volunteers who rescued passengers from the icy waters of the Hudson.”
It is not hard to be inspired by the central act of the “Miracle on the Hudson”, a 9/11-style event with a happy ending. Eastwood had to defend including images of planes crashing into buildings in the film version especially as the release date was close to the 15th anniversary of 9/11. “It’s just a bad dream sequence, and what could have happened if he didn’t make the right decision,” explained Eastwood. “The spirit it gave back the city, there was no tragic loss of life.”
That there was no loss of life was primarily due to the skill of pilot Sullenberger landing on the river but it was also due to the work of the emergency responders on the day. Police and firefighters suffered huge casualties in 9/11 and Eastwood takes the time to show their professionalism and calm in the Hudson crash. “No one dies here,” one responder tells a passenger, but that was not something they could say or control eight years earlier.
Other workers doing their job in 2009 were not shown in such good light. For most of the movie the air crash investigators were made to look like the stock “baddie” as they attempted to prove that Sullenberger could have successfully flown back to either Teterboro or Newark airports despite the catastrophe. This plot element may have been why Eastwood chose the film title “Sully” over the more media-friendly (albeit cliched) Miracle on the Hudson as the NTSB tries to sully the hero’s reputation.
The Guardian led the accusations against Eastwood calling the film a “rightwing attempt to delegitimize government – and in the process undermine the safety of millions who travel by air, train, road and boat.” They said Sullenberger’s book never showed any railroading by the National Transportation Safety Board and it was the investigators – not Sullenberger – who crucially asked a simulator pilot to wait 35 seconds before attempting an airport return, showing a return to the airport was impossible. While the Guardian has a point, Eastwood was creating drama and no-one should see the film as an accurate depiction but rather a tribute to the human spirit.
The film showed Sullenberger’s dedication to duty. His overriding concern post accident was for the “155 souls” aboard, twice traversing the stricken plane to look for bodies and not resting until all were accounted for and alive. It was easy to see why New Yorkers – would fall in love with Sully (the man) after the incident. Tom Hanks is the ideal everyman to play Sullenberger, slightly bemused with all the media attention but focussed on his job. The film does a good job of showing what the terror must have been like on board in those final moments and the computer graphics of the crash landing are impressive.
Sully is not great history, but is enjoyable cinema and works on many levels as a powerful antidote to the trauma of 9/11. In reality the only ones to suffer (apart from American International Group, US Airways’ insurer) were the Canada geese that caused the accident. As well as the flock that died when sucked into the engines, over one thousand birds were later rounded up from 17 locations in New York and gassed. As group punishment it made no sense. An estimated 20,000 geese remain in the area, and five million across the US, ready to cause the next aviation mishap.