Starring Tom Hanks & Aaron Eckhart
Directed by Clint Eastwood
In theaters Sept. 9, 2016
“Brace for impact.”
Those three words are at the heart of this inspiring big-screen salute to Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, whose successful emergency landing of crippled US Airways Flight 1549 became known around the world in 2009 as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”
Sully makes the “impact” announcement when he realizes there’s no way for his plane—with two failed engines, both destroyed by a massive flock of Canadian geese—to make a conventional landing. The line is later brought up, for much more lighthearted effect, when Sullenberger and his flight crew make a TV appearance alongside late-night host David Letterman.
But “Brace for impact” also means for you, the viewer, to hang on and get ready to dig in: Summer is over and a more serious movie season has begun. Based on Sullenberger’s 2009 best-selling memoir Highest Duty, directed by Clint Eastwood and with Tom Hanks in the starring role, Sully gives off somber Oscar signals with its theme of an ordinary, matter-of-fact man simply doing his job—until something extraordinary comes along requiring him to rise up to meet its unprecedented challenge.
“Everything is unprecedented,” Sully notes later, “until it happens for the first time.”
US Airways 1549 was in the sky less than four minutes, and Eastwood’s film toggles back and forth between the incident itself, Sully’s nightmarish flashbacks, and the wrenching post-event investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which drilled and grilled Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (an excellent Aaron Eckhart) on every detail. Was the plane really too damaged to to fly? Did Sully do everything he could to get back to the airport—any airport—instead of risking lives unnecessarily by landing on water? Pilots in computerized flight simulators, fed with data of the incident, indicate that it would have been possible to bring the plane back to LaGuardia, or into nearby Newark, or Teterboro…
“They’re playing Pac-Man!” an exasperated Skiles counters. “[We were] flying a plane full of human beings.”
As the investigation drags on and Sully is hauled before the “court” for days and days, with his career and reputation on the line, the media feasts on his amazing feat—a water “crash” landing from which all 155 passengers and crew members were safely evacuated. And the Big Apple, in the financial dumps of the Great Recession and still reeling from the aftershocks of 9/11, anoints him a hero. A bar names a drink—a shot of Grey Goose with a splash of water—in his honor. Strangers give him hugs and kisses.
“It’s been a while since New York had news this good,” one character tells him, “especially with an airplane in it.”
“I don’t feel like a hero,” Sully says. “I’m just a man who was doing his job.”
Hanks, his hair dyed white, looks very much like the real-life pilot he’s portraying, a career aviator whose lifelong love of flight—as we see—dates back to boyhood and crop-dusting biplanes. “Never forget,” his first flight teacher tells young Sully in a lesson that certainly reverberated through the years, “no matter what happens, fly the airplane.”
Just a man doing his job, a guy flying a plane, a pilot controlling the stick. Brace for impact—Sully shows us just how important that one “ordinary” person can be, when ordinary circumstances sudden, unprecedentedly, become extraordinary.