Sully The Movie


Try this thought experiment: Before USAir 1549 splashed down in the Hudson, if you put 10 airline crews in a simulator and ran the same scenario, how many would achieve results identical to the real event? Hold that thought for a moment, I’ll get back to it.

Of course, you can’t unknow the details of USAir 1549, which ditched in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009. Seven years is a decent interval for the story to stew into a movie and this weekend, Sully arrived in U.S. theaters, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks as Chesley B. Sullenberger III with Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles. Because this is a simple story—jet takes off, birds snuff engines, jet lands in river, everyone saved—injecting enough tension into the script to keep viewers engaged could have sent the thing off the rails. With just one excursion through the tulies, Eastwood and scriptwriter Todd Komarnicki kept the story reality rooted.

As the title suggests, Sully tells the story through the eyes of Sullenberger himself and, surprise, it doesn’t descend into sticky hagiography, but portrays an aviation professional who tried to do the right thing but who is racked with self-doubt and second guessing, just like the rest of us would be. In numerous interviews, the real Sullenberger comes off not as a closet Five Striper, but as an unremarkable, modest and self-effacing professional. The script allowed Hanks to convey that, which he does almost to the point of stoniness.

Since the film lacks the explosions and fires of real Hollywood air disasters, it employs the title character as a means of illuminating how stressful it is for an aircrew lucky enough to survive an accident to then suffer though the investigation. In real life and in the film, this becomes so all consuming for the pilots involved that for many months, if not longer, it’s as though nothing else exists.

Because accident investigation can be adversarial at times, pilots quite rightly feel they’re under suspicion and are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. In Sully, this is conveyed through a panel of scowling investigators who ask the crew if they got enough sleep or maybe have some problems on the home front. Sully and Skiles were kept in New York for days after the accident and were hounded by the press for interviews. In one clip that made my skin crawl, the filmmakers cobbled together a scene revisiting the crew’s appearance on David Letterman’s The Late Show, with Hanks and Eckhart dropped into the footage. It’s mercifully short but almost unwatchable, illustrating how ordinary people are dragged into the spotlight for the fleeting amusement of the rest of us and a few ratings points.

Because as pilots, we know far more about the 1549 accident than the freckled-neck masses watching the film do, the draw for us to see how the filmmakers will depict the actual event. Will they get the details right? Will it look and sound convincing?Technically and cinematically, Sully is tightly constructed. At just over 90 minutes, it’s short for a modern film and the effects are impressive. If anything in the film is Oscar worthy, it ought to be the sound designer’s work. Listen closely to the cockpit and cabin background noise and you’ll hear a lot of texture;: impacts as the birds strike, bumping, rotational sounds as the engines roll back and all sorts of system warnings. The CGI for the airplane in flight against the skyline is superb, but they didn’t get the touchdown just right—it looks a little too much like a model. Also, look closely at a couple of medium shots where passengers are evacuating the floating fuselage. The trees in the background are in full green bloom.Minor stuff, to be sure, but it caught my eye.

Far less minor was how the NTSB investigators were portrayed as almost dishonestly determined to find fault with the crew’s decision making. In the denouement, Sullenberger and Skiles are before a tribunal of investigators who play simulator footage showing that the Airbus could have easily been landed back at LaGuardia or across the river in Teterboro. Under questioning from Sully, they admit it took 17 tries to achieve the results and that the sim pilots knew what was coming. I could hear someone in the theater behind me muttering something about those lousy government bastards.

Of course, that scene was a complete confection. It never happened. As part of an observational study—and this is in the public docket—investigators did run 20 simulations on the accident. Of the 15 that produced good data, eight successfully landed, either at LaGuardia or Teterboro. But all of them were commenced immediately after the birdstrike, with the pilots knowing what was coming. When the 35-second real-world decision-making fog was considered, the sim pilots couldn’t make it to either airport. The filmmakers tie this into a nice bow by listening to the CVR tape and then recanting, declaring the two pilots as heroes through admiring eyes.


This license has drawn the ire of some in the NTSB and I don’t blame them. “There was no effort to crucify him or embarrass him. If there were questions, it was to learn things,” Malcolm Brenner, an NTSB behavior specialist, told Bloomberg News. I suspect Brenner would have been especially annoyed when the Hanks character explains that when human factors are considered, the glide back to the runway was not in the cards. The scene is played as though the NTSB hadn’t thought of that.

This by no means ruins the film, in my estimation. Sully still tells the story effectively and supposedly conveys how Sullenberger actually felt. Only he knows that. Look, I was paying attention in English lit when we talked about the need for dramatic conflict, but in this case, it was wholly unnecessary—like hitting a carpet tack with a 10-pound maul. The tension was already well established. I think it sullies—if I may revert to the verb rather than the noun—the NTSB’s reputation for no gain. (Sullenberger insisted that the names of the actual investigators not be used in the film.)

Now back to the thought experiment, which may help you gauge how heroic you think Sullenberger really was. An accident investigator friend of mine said he thought 10 out of 10 crews would have pegged the same decisions and achieved the same outcome. My guess was seven out of 10 because human nature is, if nothing else, defined by inexplicable variables. For that reason, I don’t see Sullenberger as particularly heroic. I see him—and Skiles—as highly competent. And near the close of the movie, Hanks as Sully says as much. But evidently, people need heroes and will pay money to scratch the itch.Otherwise Clint Eastwood wouldn’t make movies about them.

The foregoing is opinion and commentary based on disclosed facts.AVwebwelcomes other points of view, including guest blogs.