by Michael B. Hock
“Based on a true story” movies are a hard subject. First of all, the term has been stolen by a lot of horror movies that take one little detail… i.e. there is a house in New England, so why don’t we claim this movie about a murder-ghost murder-murdering a family really happened? Then there’s the details, like maybe making a heroic figure who saved thousands of lives into a villain so Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet could hang onto a door for a few hours? And those problems persisted long before movies started catching up to history and we started making them based on things that happened only a few years ago.
So when I heard that they were making a movie based on the “Miracle on the Hudson” where Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed an Airbus 320, I was a bit skeptical. It was basically a movie that revolved around only a few minutes, and something that a good portion of us still remember happening. Then Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks got involved, and I was a lot less skeptical, because we must never forget that Tom Hanks is less a man and more a character on Mission Impossible, who can act his way out of any situation.
And they succeeded in making a compelling story and giving it a lot of meaning. It should be noted I may be discussing some things that may be considered spoilers by some, but by not by others who have Google and Wikipedia and a working memory of 2009.
Sully focuses on pretty much what was described before, either the crashing or the forced water landing of US. Airways Flight 1549 after taking of from LaGuardia Airport after a bird strike disabled both engines. It takes a look at the toll it took on Captain Sullenberger to make that decision, his relationship with his wife (Laura Linney) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) and the ensuing investigation from the evil (more on this in a minute) National Transportation and Safety Board. Turn on CNN or Fox News during 2009? You’ve got the story.
I keep pushing the idea that this is recent history because recent history films are difficult to make. We have a memory of it, we watched the millions of profiles of courage on Sullenberger, we know what he did. It’s not as if we’re wondering what is going to happen when the plane landed on the Hudson – we know. One hundred and fifty five people were on that plane, and one hundred and fifty five people lived to tell the story. However, Eastwood tells this story in such a way that there is that feeling of anxiousness, there is the wonder of what happens, even for anyone who followed the story. He’s an excellent storyteller.
One of the strengths of the movie is the fact that it focuses on Sully’s decision. The movie opens with the plane crashing in New York instead of landing on the Hudson (a jarring moment that signals to the audience that we will be focusing on Sully himself, and what his decision meant). It’s a stark reminder that this wasn’t an easy decision. The movie itself doesn’t hold back the truth: landing the plane on the Hudson was a terrible decision. We are reminded that it’s the only forced water landing to have everyone walk away. It was just the least terrible option they had, and the only one that could result in saving not just the lives of everyone on the plane, but anyone who was below. Captain Sullenberger’s heroism wasn’t just in landing that plane, it was the fact that he made an incredibly hard call, and stood by it.
For perspective, Eastwood focuses on that decision from many angles. One of my favorites focuses on the air traffic controller who got the message that the plane was going down. From his perspective the plane was lost completely. It says something that we know that the plane landed – and yet we can still empathize with this guy, sitting alone in a room wondering what he could have done differently to save the plane. It’s a reminder of the thesis of the film: Sully had a hard call to make, and he made it.
But that’s another thing that works about this film. The crash is seen many times, from many different perspectives, inclined Skiles and Sully’s visions of what could have gone wrong. We even are treated to simulations of the event where everything is fine. But we don’t see it from their perspective until the very end of the movie.
What else is there to say that’s great about this film? The performances are dead on. Tom Hanks doesn’t act so much as meld himself into the role of Sully, dealing with his flashbacks, his what ifs, and the unexpected fame in a unique way. He plays Sully as a confident man who simply is caught up in his own story. He also never deviates from his belief that what he did was right – and that’s important. There’s only one moment of the film where he strays a little bit.
My only complaint about this film is the portrayal of the NTSB members investigating the landing (or as they refer to it, the crash, and are constantly corrected.) The only thing missing from these characters are mustaches to twirl and top hats while they’re tying women to train tracks for Sully to come rescue. (A little research even shows that the real Captain Sullenberger disagreed with this portrayal of the board.) At the end of the day these guys still had a plane that had landed in the water that was not typically supposed to land in the water. Hanks has a moment where he has his epiphany to “defeat them” and this is the only moment he seems not only out of character, but I half expected a bald eagle carrying the American Flag to personally kill each member of the NTSB at the end. It’s extremely distracting, particularly given the great message of the film, summed up by Sully at the end: yes, he landed the plane, but it worked because everyone came together. The Flight attendants, the passengers, the NYPD… so to feature moments where there’s a clear “villain” when the only real villains of the movie are the birds and the circumstances is very distracting.
This is a minor moment (and they’re not heavily featured) in a great movie. Everything is pulled together to create a wonderful moment of living history. It’s also an uplifting story that doesn’t give us ghosts or forced tragedies. It gives us a story of a man who had only terrible options in front of him, but still made his decision.