Empty, the Airbus A320 weighs about 82,000 pounds. Add pilot, crew and 150 or so passengers, fill it up with fuel, and the bird's weight nearly doubles. And yet, through the miracle of physics and thrust, these behemoths take to the air every day. They wing from city to city, from country to country without incident; without, it would even seem, much thought. Air travel is rote, predictable. Passengers gripe about cramped seating and security lines, but most don't worry so much about these massive hunks of metal actually flying. That, miraculously, is a given.
But what if something goes wrong?
Something went very wrong on US Airways Flight 1549. Shortly after takeoff on a routine flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, the flight's Airbus—piloted by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger—ran headlong into a massive flock of birds. The collision took out both of the plane's engines. Suddenly Sully was piloting an 82-ton glider.
And 82 tons just doesn't glide for very long.
Sully had few options. Could they return to LaGuardia? Find a closer airport? Sully dismissed those suggestions quickly. He looked instead to the nearby Hudson River—smooth, flat, away from any buildings. A water landing, Sully decided, was his only option. The plane's only hope.
But was it really? While Sully's dramatic water landing became the stuff of legend in the days that followed it, US Airways lost a $100 million bit of machinery, and executives there wanted to know why. Computer data hinted that one of the engines might've not been quite as dead as Sully believed. Even if it was, computer simulations suggested that the plane still could've gotten back to LaGuardia safely.
And as the investigation doggedly presses on, Sully begins to wonder whether he's the hero the world thinks he is. Could he actually be the goat instead?
Sully doesn't see himself as a hero, even before the questions start flying. "I'm just a man doing his job," he says.
But Sully sells himself short. The captain isn't flashy or glib: In fact, in the hands of Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, the guy comes across as a little dull. But when it comes to flying, Sully knows what he's doing.
Even if we set aside the question of whether Sullenberger should've landed in the Hudson, once he does, his actions are admirable. He shows a deep, cool concern for his passengers in the crash's aftermath, guiding them off the sinking plane, handing them jackets and blankets as they leave (it was, after all, January in New York). When it seems as if the plane is empty, he even wades through the freezing, seeping waters to make sure he's the last to leave. And when he's on dry land again and someone asks how he's doing, Sully says he can't even answer that until he learns for sure that everyone got off his plane safely.
But Sully says—and rightfully so—that he's not the only hero of the story. "We all did it," he says. He's referring to his crew: First Officer Jeff Skiles, who never lost his cool even as the plane lost air. The three flight attendants who calmly guided the plane's frightened passengers through the crash procedures and then, just as calmly, shepherded them to safety. The air traffic controllers who frantically did their best to bring Sully's big bird down without loss of life. The ferrymen and rescue personnel who were almost immediately on scene, plucking people from the icy Hudson before hypothermia could kick in.
Sully is really a study in good old-fashioned competence, a salute to people who do their jobs and do them well under stressful, near-impossible conditions. It'd be easy to panic in a situation like this. But Sully and his crew never did. And a lot of lives were saved because of it.
Sully's water landing has become known as the "Miracle on the Hudson, and the word "miracle" is indeed used here more times than I can count. But in director Clint Eastwood's telling, this was no supernatural miracle. No deus ex machina held the plane aloft or enabled it to land safely in a river.
Still, there are hints of faith scattered throughout the movie. We see one passenger offering up a hurried prayer as the plane sinks. A cross adorns the side of an urban New York church. An air traffic controller, frantically trying to get Sully's plane to safety, whispers, "Please, God." When Sully and Jeff check into a New York hotel after the accident, the manager gives Sully a huge hug and says, "Have a blessed day."
Sully's own beliefs are not on display here. But before he heads into an important hearing, we do see the captain close his eyes and take several deep breaths before opening the door—perhaps in prayer, perhaps in meditation or perhaps simply to collect himself.
A television employee gives Sully a kiss on the cheek—from her mother, she says. "And she's single," she adds. "Tell your mom thank you," Sully responds. "But I've got a girl at home."
Sully insists that Flight 1549 didn't crash: It was, rather, a "forced water landing." As we've mentioned, everyone involved survived. In fact, folks suffered only slight injuries in the incident: We see a bit of blood mixed in the Hudson's icy waters as someone makes his way through the plane cabin. A flight attendant winces in pain as she's helped to safety. (We later hear that she cut her leg and will probably carry a scar from it.) Two people are rescued from the Hudson after trying to swim to safety.
But even though the actual plane didn't "crash," we still see plenty of planes go down in not-so-rosy scenarios. Sully imagines at least two fiery aviation mishaps—terrifying dreams or imaginings of what could've happened. (Eastwood uses these fictions to remind viewers of 9/11, less than eight years in the rearview mirror when the Miracle on the Hudson occurred.) Computer simulators, flown by real pilots, also depict crashes (albeit bloodlessly).
And while every person survived the crash, a whole bunch of birds met their feathery end: We see them smash into the plane's windshield and hit the engines.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and seven s-words, along with a flight log of other profanities including "a--," "b--ch," "d--n," and "h---." God's name is misused twice; Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Sully orders a drink at a bar. He's recognized, and the barkeep mentions that he created a drink in honor of him: a shot of Grey Goose vodka with "a splash of water."
After the accident, Sully and his co-pilot are quizzed about anything that might've impaired their judgement or abilities during the flight, including alcohol and drug use. Sully said he'd not had a drink in nine days and has never taken drugs. Jeff says he simply doesn't drink.
Other Negative Elements
"I eyeballed it."
So Sully tells the investigators as they dig into his decision to ditch. He had only moments to make that decision: Just 208 seconds ticked off the clock from the instant the birds hit his plane to the instant his plane hit water. And in one of those 208 seconds, he made a fateful choice to punt protocol and trust instinct.
The computers say it was the wrong choice. One engine still worked, they whisper. The airport was in reach, they chatter. The protocol would've gotten you down. And the investigators—trained as we all are to trust our machines—are inclined to believe that cool, binary logic over Sully's 42 years of training and experience.
In Sully, director Clint Eastwood sticks to the story he wants to tell without a lot of extraneous problematic content, without narrative fluff and filler (the film clicks in at a speedy 97 minutes). And in the midst of that streamlined story, he really asks just one question: Who, or what, is most trustworthy? Sully? Or the computers?
There's no question where co-pilot Jeff Skiles comes down on the issue: "If he had followed the d--n rules we'd all be dead."
Eastwood's Sully is a deeply humanistic movie in the best possible way. It underlines what most of us already know intuitively: that as marvelous as the machines we've constructed may be, there's still a place for human instinct. For experience. For clear-headed judgment unalloyed by algorithms and protocol. For gut.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Tom Hanks as Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger; Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles; Laura Linney as Lorraine Sullenberger
Clint Eastwood ( )
September 9, 2016
December 20, 2016