Moving 'Sully' highlights the drama during and after 2009's 'Miracle on the Hudson'

Posted September 11, 2016

Tom Hanks is Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart is Jeff Skiles in "Sully." (Deseret Photo)

“SULLY” — 3½ stars — Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney; PG-13 (some peril and brief strong language); in general release

It’s nice to have a movie like “Sully” come around every once in a while. Director Clint Eastwood’s re-creation of 2009’s “Miracle on the Hudson” is the kind of story that will restore some of your faith in humanity.

Most audiences are familiar with the events of January 15, 2009, when veteran airline pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger made a dramatic emergency landing on the Hudson River and delivered all 155 of his passengers and crew to safety. But knowing the happy ending in advance doesn’t make “Sully” any less captivating.

Eastwood picks up the story (which is based on Sullenberger’s book “Highest Duty”) in the aftermath of the landing, as Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are grilled in the investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Outside closed doors, the media has anointed Sullenberger a hero, but in between interviews with Katie Couric and David Letterman, bureaucrats are second-guessing his decision to make such a risky landing.

The NTSB argument is simple: According to computer simulations, Captain Sullenberger could have steered U.S. Airways Flight 1549 back to LaGuardia for a safe landing. Captain Sullenberger and Skiles disagree, insisting that investigators are failing to consider the human factor.

While this man vs. machine conflict plays out, Sullenberger deals with the surreal experience of getting a hero’s welcome everywhere else he goes, whether dropping by a local bar or taking a jog through Times Square. Until the investigation concludes, Sullenberger remains separated from his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney), who understands that if the investigation goes badly, she and Sullenberger could be left without his pension.

The biggest challenge for Eastwood is holding the audience’s interest in a story that sees its dramatic peak early on before settling into a back room drama. His solution is to start off at the NTSB hearing and set up the conflict, then step back and show us the dramatic landing about halfway through the movie.

The strategy works. Even knowing the outcome, watching the event against its New York backdrop (Sullenberger’s landing happened only a few years post-9/11) is a moving and sobering experience. The scenes in which the crash is re-created are actually pretty restrained when considered at arms-length, and Eastwood allows the reality of the situation to provide the emotional weight rather than rely on a lot of flashy editing and effects.

Hanks doesn’t have to do much more than be a steely, white-haired 2016 Tom Hanks here, and he’s a perfect fit for the role. Hanks’s world-weary gaze and calm, understated performance is a seamless match for a man with over 40 years of experience in the air.

Frequently that gaze wrestles with nightmares of crashing the plane into the city. Eastwood has had to defend his decision to include images that are so evocative of 9/11, but considering the context and message of the film, those scenes feel more appropriate than insensitive.

At 95 minutes, “Sully” isn’t an in-depth character study, nor a twists-and-turns drama with a lot of poetic writing. But “Sully” may be even more effective as a simple portrayal of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Chesley Sullenberger may be the face of the event, but it’s the team effort that makes “Sully” truly moving.

“Sully” is rated PG-13 for some peril and brief strong language; running time: 95 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at


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