January 15, 2009; an incident happened in New York involving a plane filled with 155 passengers and crew. The last time an incident happened in New York involving planes and passengers, it left the entire world shocked and terrified. However, this time around; this particular incident left the world similarly shocked but thankfully amazed and relieved.
A passenger plane had just taken off from LaGuardia airport, and barely minutes into the flight, it encountered a flock of birds that caused both engines to shut down. Now, there are protocols for a pilot to follow in situations like this. But protocols are suppositions in hypothesis that do not factor the real time eventualities and the human angle in the events they purport to address.
Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the plane, informed the Control Tower that he was heading back to LaGuardia but on perceiving that he couldn’t make the trip back, he chose the option less likely to occasion a greater casualty; landing the plane on the Hudson River.
That singular decision is the premise of this eponymous movie directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks in the titular role. It was inevitable that a movie would eventually be made of the Miracle on the Hudson. The incident itself feels like something straight out of Hollywood in its sheer unbelievability. But believable it was. The world saw it happen live on television back in 2009.
Sully starts out with Sully imagining the disastrous outcome had his on-the-spot decision to land on the Hudson turned out differently than it did. While the world saw in him a hero, the suits at the NTSB saw differently and the man himself was reduced to second guessing his decision.
It is easy to vilify the NTSB for daring to question a pilot daubed a hero for saving lives with such a daring manoeuvre. But in situations where a majority of people are won’t to succumb to emotions, it is important that a detached and seemingly cold perspective is brought to bare to dissect decisions made and actions taken to determine whether they were the most rational course of action to pursue in the circumstance. Irrespective of the outcome of the miracle on the Hudson, protocols should largely guide the actions of pilots and their crew in situations such as Captain Sully faced.
The flip side however is; as much as protocols are important, inevitably; when faced with the anticipated event, a pilot’s personal judgment, given the variables of the immediate situation he is faced with, should not be discountenaced or downplayed for protocol.
To tell the story of Sully, Director, Clint Eastwood, chose a combination of flashbacks and real time narrative with a toned down simplicity to highlight the intense emotional canvas against which the event of January 15, 2009 played out. Sure, the CGI recreations of the crash (or landing ) were impressive but they did not overwhelm the emotional angle that needed to be the centrepiece in recreating the events of that fateful day.
Sully was as much the story of the outcome of one man’s decision in the most trying of times as it was, a peep show into the lives of pilots and crew members whilst on duty. If you have ever been on a plane, you know how nervous and scary the experience can be when there’s turbulence. You know how much relief you get from hearing a soothing reassurance from the flight deck. You know how you search the faces of the flight crew for that reassuring smile that tells you not to pay too much mind to that disturbing noise you want to believe you are imagining, or the turbulence that shakes the plane like a rag doll.
For a few minutes or hours of flight, you have to endure that inconvenience. But for the flight crew, that’s the story of their everyday lives. They live it every day they report for duty. As if that is not daunting enough, they have the added responsibility of not only calming passenger anxieties but also when the most dreaded of aviation eventualities occur, they have to make passenger evacuation paramount even to their own natural instinct of self-preservation.
As the titular character, Tom Hanks embodied Captain Shelsey “Sully” Sullenberger both in physical looks and no doubt in the emotional and psychological mindset he must have been in both during and after the event of January 15, 2009. The makeup crew did an excellent job of transforming Hanks into a doppelganger of Captain Sully. And Hanks did an excellent job of recreating a man burdened by the consequences of a decision he was fated to make.
Both from a story and casting perspective, the movie required that Hank’s character be the central vehicle for conveying the huge emotional and psychological canvass needed to convincingly retell the story of the miracle on the Hudson. And as he had done previously as a distressed ship captain held for ransom in Captain Phillips and the sole survivor of a plane crash stranded on a remote uninhabited island in Castaway, Tom Hanks delivered an understated but highly effective performance in Sully.
In the end, Sully was much more than a retelling of the story of the miracle on the Hudson. It was a story of the triumph of the human will and spirit. A reflective perspective on how fickle life seems when we are faced with the threat of death. It is a story of the bonds developed after surviving a near-death experience and the new perspective on life we are afforded afterwards. It was a story simply but eloquently and powerfully told.