January 15, 2009, started out like every other Thursday for the passengers and crew of US Airways Flight 1549. It would end as anything but typical. At 3:27 pm, just after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport, the plane ran headlong into a flock of geese. The bird strike destroyed both engines, leaving the aircraft crippled over a busy New York City skyline and losing altitude quickly. In a bold move, the flight’s pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), successfully executed a miraculous water landing on the Hudson River, saving everyone aboard. The maneuver brought instant international recognition and fame to the hero of the Hudson, a status its pilot found more difficult to handle than his stricken aircraft.
Clint Eastwood‘s latest film pulls off the a feat almost as improbable as the efforts of its subject matter. Everyone knows the broad strokes of this incredible story, yet Eastwood manages to repackage it in a mesmerizing, tension-filled retelling that makes it all feel entirely fresh. We see the events unfold several times — each from a different perspective that only adds to the suspense. The anxiety, stress and pressure that everyone experienced are laid bare in a way that cable news coverage could never convey.
The cast is superb throughout. No one has played more hard-luck travelers than Hanks, and it shows. Though very dissimilar to the real man, Hanks wins us over with a performance that artfully conveys Sully’s growing inner demons and challenges. In a way, the harder task falls to Aaron Eckhart as Sully’s competent, but nearly forgotten, First Officer Jeff Skiles. He delivers with a subtle, but effective, portrayal that could have easily been a distracting sideshow.
The real draw of the film comes from two areas — the reenactment scenes and the courtroom-like drama of the inevitable investigations. Both leave us on the edges of our seats for large swaths of the film’s brisk running time.
The story does falter in two critical areas. The reenactments involve some surprisingly cartoonish CGI effects, most notably the bird strikes. It wouldn’t be so bad, except for the fact that we see it so many times. More concerning is the rampant liberty that the writers took with the story’s most important historical facts. Much of the tension of the second half of the film is driven by two key factors that simply didn’t happen. The investigators looking into the events treated the real pilot with complete respect. In the film, they’re presented as bullies intent on finding fault with an obvious hero. There’s also a moving monologue from Sully that’s a fabrication of the worst kind. It’s another example of Hollywood injecting plot elements into a biographical film that needs no embellishment.
Sullenberger lamented after delivering millions of passengers safely over a 40-year career that he’d be judged by just 208 seconds. In reality, he’ll be judged in large part by the 96 minutes of this film. For the most part, it’s a story that serves him, his crew and the flight’s passengers quite well.