3.5 out of 5 stars
'This is the best thing to happen to New York in a long time, especially involving an airplane.'
How do you define a hero? Do they put on capes and appear in comic books or are they ordinary people who do exceptional things in extra-ordinary situations? On Thursday, January 15th, 2009, it was just another routine fight to Charlotte, North Carolina for Captain Chelsey Sullenberger, nicknamed 'Sully' (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). They had a full flight of passengers who were hoping to escape the cold of New York. All was routine on the flight out of the city until the A320 jetliner was hit by a flock of Canadian geese and both engines became inoperable. Relying on his 40 years of flying experience, Sully managed to land the jetliner on the Hudson River with miraculously few injuries and no deaths occurring. The seasoned pilot became an instant celebrity and hero of the Big Apple. During the celebrations and adulation from the around the city, behind the scenes there was a tension surrounding the investigation into the flight's circumstances. Sully was unable to celebrate with the world, due to the implications of what he was accused of during the landing and the potential impact that it would have on his career and his life.
From American Sniper to Sully, director Clint Eastwood continues to find the stories behind the unsung heroes of this era. Captain Chelsey Sullenberger received his 15 minutes of fame, but Eastwood manages to take the pilot's autobiographical sketch and deliver a compelling and celebratory drama. The quality of the director and cast in this production is evident, because they manage to draw every shred of emotional capital out of the pilot's short claim to fame. Eastwood is able to maintain the intensity of the action and investigation by showing the different vantage points of the flight that help us to see every aspect of the harrowing event. Also, he capitalises on Hank's ability to capture the 'everyman' essence of his character by naturally showing his inner strength and vulnerability on screen. The Oscar winning actor continues in this trend through many of his recent roles as Captain Richard Phillips (Captain Phillips) and James B. Donovan (Bridge of Spies).
The strength of this film's conciseness does expose some of its weaknesses. The brevity of the flight incident meant that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki had worked exceptionally hard to maintain the attention of the audience. Through the inclusion of Sully's past and family, they managed to pull this off with little difficulty. The story does struggle to maintain it's altitude throughout the film, but overall it does stay in the air. The struggle in this situation is finding the antagonist. They attempted to paint the investigators as the villains through the majority of the film, but ultimately they were merely trying to do their jobs. This made for an unnecessary vilification of people who are merely attempting to get to the bottom of this unique event in history. Ultimately, these are minor issues and do not cause the engines to fail in this captivating story in world history.
Like American Sniper, there may be artistic license taken with the storyline, but the heart of the story makes for an enjoyable and compelling experience. Admittedly, Chelsey Sullenberger may not have the same bravado of Chris Kyle, but they seem to be men cut from the same cloth. Men who's stories should cause anyone from an American background to well up with patriotism and pride for the country of their origin.
REEL DIALOGUE: What are some of the bigger questions to consider from this film?
How do you define a hero? This is a question that can take on a multitude of answers. From the fictional character to the unsung humble members of our community, the label of hero can cut across cultures, genders, ages and nations.
Hero: a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character
This broad definition can be placed on many individuals throughout history, but there is only one person who truly fits into this without blemish. One whose courageous act was enough to save the world. It is hard to look pass Jesus as the true definition of hero. All others pail in comparison, not to diminish their value, but merely to point to the one who set the standard for true heroism.
Passages on defining heroes: Mark 9:35, John 15:3, John 3:17, and the Gospel of Luke
In his memoirs, Sullenberger approvingly shares this example of a letter that was sent to him following the incident, where he was praised for his preparation and diligence rather than his heroism. I thought the film brought this across well through their depiction of Sully's quiet, no-nonsense professionalism:
"“In your interviews, you seemed uncomfortable being called a hero,” wrote Paul Kellen of Medford, Massachusetts. “I also found the title inappropriate. I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose, and you were not given a choice. That is not to say you are not a man of virtue, but I see your virtue arising from your choices at other times. It is clear you take your professional responsibilities seriously. It is clear that many of the choices in your life prepared you for that moment when your engines failed.
“There are people among us who are ethical, responsible, and diligent. I think there are many of them. You might have toiled in obscurity were it not for an ill-timed meeting with a flock of birds.
“I hope your story encourages those many others who toil in obscurity to know that their reward is simple—they will be ready if the test comes. I do not mean to diminish your achievement. I just want to point out that when the challenge sounded, you had thoroughly prepared yourself. I hope your story encourages others to imitation.”
- Chesley B. Sullenberger, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters (p265)
Thanks for your comment, James. Did you enjoy the film?
Yes, I definitely enjoyed it. There was a lot of great technical detail in it, and the acting was superb. I also felt some of the re-enactments and dream sequences helped impress the gravity of the situation on audiences who may be less familiar with flying (Sully himself said unless he was absolutely certain he could make it back to LaGuardia he wouldn't attempt it; due to the risk of crashing in a heavily populated area and causing a catastrophe)
I might quibble a bit with the NTSB scenes, especially the crowded room in the end. In reality, there were only six people in the room when the CVR was first heard, and it wasn't an inquisition. But the pilot's response was accurate; they found it intensely emotional and asked to be excused from the room, after which Sully gave Jeff the spiel that the film depicted so poignantly.
And believe it or not, the fortune cookie was real, too!
It's interesting too that they chose to excise aspect's of Sully's life which fleshed him out as a complex character in his book. The struggles he and Lorrie had with infertility and choosing to adopt their daughters; the tragedy of his father's suicide after suffering depression and Sully's determination to be a champion for mental health. I understand why Eastwood cut this - he wanted to stay very focussed on the flight - but I thought it was interesting biographical detail nonetheless.
As an engineer my favorite line of the film was "engineers can make mistakes. They're not pilots". Amen to that!!