MIAMI — “Sully,” the movie portraying the famed “Miracle on the Hudson” event is much like “Titanic.” Everybody knows the final outcome. But unlike the ending of the British passenger liner, the entire flight of US Airways 1549, on which the movie is based, took less than six minutes.
The movie’s director, Clint Eastwood, did an excellent job of taking us into the mind of Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and the post-flight ordeal that followed his unprecedented act of airmanship.
As an aviation journalist, and someone who generally loves airplanes, I don’t consider Sullenberger’s actions miraculous at all, and I think he would agree with me. On that fateful day, Sully was an airline captain who followed protocols and took command of the disabled aircraft, using his career experience to make decisions in the heat of the moment.
Nobody in history had encountered a dual-engine flame out at such a low altitude before, and no pilot had ever trained for such an event.
Upon receiving the invitation from Warner Brothers to attend an advanced screening of “Sully” in Las Vegas, I got Sullenberger’s 2009 book, Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters — written in collaboration with Jeffrey Zaslow. I did this because, as they say, “the book is always better than the movie,” but I also expected the book to provide a lot of insight into Sullenberger’s experience as a pilot and what drove his decision-making process on that January day. I’m glad I did so, because the movie omitted a lot of backstory about Sully that I found interesting and relevant to the flight 1549 story.
Much of the film focuses on the events that happened after Sullenberger and the crew of US1549 successfully saved 155 lives, including their own. It shows the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) during its post-incident investigation grilling Sullenberger and first officer Jeff Skiles, suggesting that simulations of the event indicate he could have returned the plane to New York’s La Guardia Airport.
Eastwood told the LA Times that he was attracted to the script upon learning of the conflict Sullenberger endured after the event, in what seemed like a witch hunt to prove Sullenberger mishandled the plane and could have landed safely. He also said he longed for reality in the face of superhero-style movies. Speaking of reality, Hanks and co-star Aaron Eckhart, who plays first officer Skiles, sat in a flight simulator and were given instruction and the exact replication of the events encountered by the two pilots.
“Every time the birds hit the windshield, we flinched,” Eckhart told the Wall St Journal. “And then we tried to land the plane, which was disastrous.”
Fellow Airways writer Eric Auxier examined the accuracy of “Sully” based on the trailer. As an “avgeek” and movie-goer, one noticeable inaccuracy within the movie was that the passengers wore inflatable life vests featuring the “USAir” logo. USAir changed its name to US Airways in 1997, while the ill-fated Airbus A320, (N106US • MSN 1044) wasn’t delivered to the airline until 1999, so it would have never flown life vests adorned with that logo.
Interestingly, an overhead shot of La Guardia Airport in the trailer showed a Southwest 737 wearing the new Heart livery which didn’t come out until 2014, but the Southwest plane didn’t show up in the film. What I did enjoy seeing was pre-merge Continental planes in those shots.
Sullenberger told WSJ that the movie replication was precise, down to the pen in his pocket, and wristwatch he wore, and the dialogue was verbatim. Overall, the life vest snafu was the only glaring error noticed, and most movie goers wouldn’t think twice about it.
The aircraft interior was spot-on, while many movies commonly make mistakes such as showing a narrow-body jet in exterior shots, but the interior scenes have two aisles.
If I were to suggest an improvement to the movie, I would have liked to have seen more of Sullenberger’s history as a pilot. The film showed brief scenes of him taking flying lessons as a teenager in Denison, Texas, and then one other flashback scene of him landing an F-4 fighter jet with mechanical trouble.
Sully’s flight training cost him $6.00 an hour, including fuel! I imagine we wouldn’t be worried about a pilot shortage if that were still the case.
His book, Highest Duty, goes much deeper into his personal and career history. It was also a bit confusing how the timeline jumped around in the movie between past and current events.
One could justifiably question the release date of the movie: the weekend of the 15th anniversary of 9/11. In fact, two scenes in the movie show N106US hitting Manhattan buildings. These crashes took place during nightmares Sully was having, but I found them a bit disturbing. But as we all know by now, this event concludes happily. And like 9/11, the “Miracle on the Hudson” reflects the utmost resolve and volunteerism of New York’s first responders, who rescued Flight 1549’s passengers and crew from the waters of the icy Hudson River.
In the movie, a US Airways pilot union representative commented, “It’s about time something good about New York made the news, especially involving an airplane.”
The casting of Hanks as Sullenberger was perfect. Hanks, being Hollywood’s “everyman,” played the humble Sully with perfection, and was completely believable as an airline captain. This week, the internet took notice of how Hanks’ movie characters always seem to get involved in travel trouble in examples such as “Joe vs the Volcano,” “Castaway,” “The Terminal,” and even “Apollo 13.”
After the movie, a studio representative was around for us to give our thoughts on the movie, and I said I thought it did justice to what Sullenberger and Skiles accomplished on that day. I overheard a couple of other responses — one saying that the communication portrayed between Sully and his wife Lorrie seemed unemotional, but I would attribute that to the stress they were involved in at the time. She was stuck back in California, while Sully had to remain in New York for the NTSB investigation.
Pilots often have to separate emotion from the facts they’re dealing with, and in Highest Duty, Sully said his family wasn’t even on his mind when guiding US1549 toward the Hudson, because he had to remain focused on the landing.
Someone also commented that it seemed like they were really digging for a story to stretch the short flight into a feature length movie, but this person obviously knew nothing about aviation or the events and accusations Sullenberger and Skiles endured in the following days.
Airways requested interview opportunities from Warner Brothers with Sullenberger, Eastwood and Hanks, but they were declined. Warner Bros did provide a ticket for the writer to view an advanced screening of “Sully” prior to the official release on September 9th.