Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Valerie Mahaffey
Synopsis: The story of Chesley Sullenberger, an American pilot who became a hero after landing his damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight's passengers and crew.
Genre: Biography, Drama
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (Some peril and brief strong language)
Release Date: September 9, 2016
You probably remember where you were when you heard about the "Miracle on the Hudson." You probably remember most of the details of the incident--that a passenger plane hit a flock of birds shortly after takeoff, lost engine power, and ditched safely into the Hudson River. The incident was a majorly publicized event, and with good reason--a large passenger airliner safely making an impromptu landing in a freezing river in the largest city in the United States will make the top headlines.
What many people don't know about the event, however, is the behind-the-scenes investigation that took place after the event. The investigation, led by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), as with all aircraft incidents, closely analyzed the landing by the pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, to see if he could have made it safely back to an airport without having to ditch into the Hudson.
Director Clint Eastwood dives into the investigation in his latest film, Sully. Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks portrays Captain Sullenberger, while Golden Globe nominee Aaron Eckhart plays his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles. The film recreates the landing through a series of flashbacks from Sully, who has since been dealing with effects of PTSD from his harrowing experience. While the flight and subsequent landing and rescue in the Hudson is visually striking, Eastwood portrays it in segments separated from the present that, unfortunately, reduce its emotional and psychological impact on the audience. Nevertheless, he motivates the artistic choice by using them for Sully's character reliving the experience while trying to focus on the investigation that is taking place.
And that is where the film's strength lies. Eastwood explores Sully as a man who, though being hailed a hero by the public, is being examined as a man who could be at fault for making a risky decision of ditching a passenger plane carrying 155 souls in the Hudson instead of flying to two possible airports (LaGuardia and Teterboro). Tom Hanks doesn't disappoint, once again delivering a strong and well-rounded performance as a man who questions his judgment and his capability as a veteran pilot, especially when early findings suggest that the left engine was running at idle and not destroyed by the impact of the birds. He knows what's at stake--that pilot error could ruin his reputation and career as a pilot, as he quotes, "Over 40 years in the air, but in the end I'm going to be judged by 208 seconds." His situation is a powerful reminder of how one mistake or decision can ruin a person's trustworthiness and status in society, no matter how much was accomplished before, as so many actors and professional athletes have found out for themselves. Indeed, the title of the film Sully is short for Sullenberger but is also a word that is a synonym for tarnish, taint, defile, and spoil--all things that Sullenberger hoped would not happen to his career for landing in the Hudson.
Another major strength of the film is its commentary on simulation and AI. During the investigation, simulator pilots demonstrated that they could successfully land the aircraft at LaGuardia and Teterboro airports after the bird strike, making Sully's landing in the Hudson unnecessarily risky and dangerous to the lives of the passengers and crew. However, during the hearing Sully notices and comments that the simulator pilots weren't acting human, as after the bird strike they immediately turned toward the airport without trying to restart the engines or think about the best course of action. This points to a philosophy that has been examined in a number of films--humans don't act like machines, we think things through rather than use algorithms to function. We also have a moral compass that influences our decisions, even if the mathematically correct decision is right in front of us. A strong example of this is in the sci-fi thriller i, Robot (Proyas, 2004), where Del Spooner (Will Smith) recounts the story of being saved by a robot from a submerged vehicle instead of a young girl, who was deemed statistically less likely to survive. Spooner tearfully quotes, "It calculated I had a forty-five percent chance of survival; Sarah had an eleven percent. Eleven percent is more than enough. A human being would've known that." In Sully's case, the inquiry board relents and gives the simulator pilots a 35 second delay to include the human factor. With the delay, both pilots crash short of the airport. Furthermore, after a break in the inquiry, the left engine is recovered from the Hudson, revealing it was indeed destroyed from the bird strike. Sully is consequently deemed a hero by both the public and the NTSB for his successful landing in the Hudson.
Sully is a well-acted and pertinent drama that goes beyond exploring a miracle aircraft landing on the Hudson. It explores the character of Sully and his emotional turmoil following the landing, while also offering intelligent and relevant commentary on our continued (perhaps dangerous) reliance on artificial intelligence.