Sully Movie Review: A smooth take on the events of January 15, 2009

Note: Minor spoiler alert, although I would assume that many of you know the general events and aftermath of the Miracle on the Hudson.

Be honest: if you know me, you know that I was – in all likelihood – going to see Sully as soon as humanly possible. While an aviation gearhead in general, I took a particular interest in the events surrounding U.S. Airways flight 1549 (known as “Cactus 1549” over the radio), and read both Capt. Chesley Sullenberger’s autobiography Higher Duty as well as another book detailing the stories of the passengers on that fateful flight. So when I was sitting on my lunch break today and saw that the film, slated to open tomorrow, was actually premiering tonight at 7:00, I figured the timing was perfect to catch the premier at the Boston Common IMAX on my way home.

Background

For those of you who don’t know, flight 1549 was an Airbus A320 flying from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte Douglas International Airport on January 15, 2009. Following a bird strike shortly after takeoff, the plane lost thrust in both engines – a highly unlikely occurrence that, I don’t think, had ever happened before at such a low altitude – and didn’t have enough altitude or speed to return to LaGuardia or divert to New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport or Newark Liberty International Airport. Thus, Capt. Sullenberger, affectionately known as “Sully,” and First Officer Jeff Skiles successfully brought the plane down in the Hudson River. Miraculously, all 155 people on board survived, prompting Capt. Sullenberger to be labeled a hero and the event to be unofficially titled the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

This film was made to profile the crash, as well as the life of Capt. Sullenberger – played by Tom Hanks – following the incident. All things considered, I think it did an excellent job, and was objectively as good and accurate as any “based on a true story” movie I’ve ever seen – aviation or otherwise.

The NTSB: Pantomime villains

Upon seeing the previews months ago, the one thing that I wasn’t sold on was the characterization of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the body that investigates the majority of plane crashes within the United States. My gut reaction was that the film focused far too much on the hearings, and consequently I found the NTSB hearings to be dramatized in comparison to what I knew of the accident and the aftermath.

For example, the movie showed the simulator pilots successfully landing at both LaGuardia and Teterboro, and the NTSB board members looking condescendingly (in a “see? Told you so.” kind of way) at Sully and Skiles, and only performed the simulations with a 35-second delay that accounts for the human factor when prompted by Sully. In reality, 7 of the 15 attempts made by the simulator pilots without the 35 second delay were unsuccessful, and the single attempt that was made with said delay was unsuccessful (the film did show unsuccessful attempts being performed at both LaGuardia and Teterboro).

To be sure, I was not in any of those meeting rooms, and I have not seen a transcript of said meetings. Moreover, I cannot emphasize enough that I do not have all the facts. That said, it seemed that the premise of the movie was to make the NTSB out to be the bad guys, when I can’t say that I got that impression from Sully’s autobiography nor other documentations of the crash, including this excerpt from a press release concerning the NTSB’s final report which was about as praiseworthy as an impartial document could be.

The Physical and Mental Impacts

Even with how well the events of January 15, 2009 turned out, there’s no doubt that the events took a toll on Sully, Skiles, and others close to them. The film shows a number of scenes where Sully is speaking with his wife Lori on the phone, and Hanks and costar Laura Linney do extremely well at showing the stress that both underwent after the crash. (One minor goof: According to his autobiography, Sullenberger’s daughters were at school at the time of the crash, and were picked up by Lori after she received the call from Sully. In the film, they’re sitting at the kitchen table).

In addition to the strain that the crash puts on his relationship with his wife, Sully is shown to be stressed out and suffering from flashbacks, as well as bad dreams. And while Katie Couric (as herself) saying “are you a hero, Chesley Sullenberger? Or are you a fraud?” in a bad dream is perhaps a bit of a stretch, it is known that Sully questioned himself a lot following the incident. Hanks purveyed the gamut of emotions that Sully ran, and then some, and I think he did a fantastic job at recreating what I can only imagine was running through Sully’s head.

The Passengers

Two of the passengers that I remember reading about and seeing a lot of were father and son Rob and Jeff Kolodjay, who, along with four other men, were traveling on a golf trip and were rebooked on flight 1549 after a cancellation on another airline. Rob, at the front of the plane, was separated from his son, sitting at the back, and thought that Jeff had perished. There is quite a moving video clip of a tearful Rob – hours after the crash – making contact with his son for the first time via a cell phone. The movie does well to re-enact the scene, and I was glad that they profiled the Kolodjays among the many passengers – all of whom had unique stories to tell.

Realism

I was pleasantly surprised at how realistic the film was – although perhaps I shouldn’t have been, given that it is a Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks film. The aircraft shown in the movie was – much like the actual plane itself – a U.S. Airways Airbus A320, and the simulator cockpits appeared to be Airbus as well. Furthermore, it was clear that the annunciator (a voice in the cockpit that calls out “above-ground” altitudes below a certain point) was an Airbus annunciator, and not one on Boeing or other aircraft. Most humorously, the pre-flight conversation between the two pilots in which Skiles (in jest) calls Sully an “excellent BS-er” based on a Google search was the very chat recounted in Higher Duty. I had a good laugh at that, even though I knew it was coming.

The ATC communciations and CVR transcript were incredibly accurate – practically down to the word, although there were a couple of times where a different word here or a different phrase there was used. (Trust me, I’ve listened to the ATC audio clips probably 10+ times). Regardless, it wasn’t like Hanks was paraphrasing consistently, and I was impressed at his ability to accurately reenact the conversation that Sully had with New York TRACON controller Patrick Harten, who was played by Patch Darragh. For his part, Harten – both in real life and in the movie – did a fantastic job given the situation, and his calmness was comparable to that of Capt. Sullenberger’s.

Credits

Unless it’s a film with blooper reels, I usually don’t stick around for the credits. But I’m glad I did with this film, which featured film of a real-life reunion between the passengers and their families and Capt. Sullenberger, First Officer Skiles, and flight attendants Sheila Dail, Donna Dent, and Doreen Welsh. Certain passengers, including Barry Leonard, a likeable Charlotte business executive, stated their seat numbers on that day, and the footage also showed Sullenberger addressing the crowd, saying something to the effect of “when you think of 155, plus family and friends, the number of people is a pretty big number” and that he thought that it was a good outcome for everyone. I think most would tend to agree.

Overall Impressions

As I should’ve expected, Sully was well worth the $18.99 (yikes!) that I paid to see it in IMAX – and I’m not just saying that as an aviation buff. Sure, the pantomime villain status of the NTSB was perhaps a bit exaggerated, but that’s to be expected – it is a drama, after all. Regardless, the accuracy of the reenactment, the quality of the acting, and the special effects were phenomenal, and I would highly recommend it to all, as it was an incredibly well-done film that lived up to billing.