On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 departed LaGuardia airport at 3:24 p.m. There were 155 souls, including captain and crew, on board. Roughly 208 seconds later, flight 1549 was forced to land on the Hudson River no more than seven miles away from takeoff. No one was seriously injured and within 24 minutes, NY Waterway ferries, the New York Fire Department, New York Police Department and the US Coast Guard had all 155 passengers rescued and safely back on dry land.
This event would come to be known as “The Miracle on the Hudson” and Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger was crowned a hero. But in America, we don’t have heroes. As far as the insurance companies and corporations are concerned, heroic acts are far too costly. Capt. Sully and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles were questioned by the National Transportation Safety Board to determine if Sully had acted correctly. According to the NTSB, Flight 1549 did not lose booth engines, as Sully claimed, and the airplane could have safely returned to LaGuardia where risk and cost would have been minimal. Was Sully a hero, or did he simply make the wrong choice and get lucky?
That question forms the crux of director Clint Eastwood’s dramatic retelling of the Miracle on the Hudson, but thankfully, it is not one that Eastwood dwells on too long. Instead, he is much more interested in how Sully (played with understated precision by Tom Hanks) himself views the events. Sully is a cut and dry man, one of simple words and quiet actions. He is calculated and safe, but most importantly, he is experienced. His whole life has been flying. But it’s not the allure of the blue skies and airborne freedom that captures Sully’s mind. Instead, it is the satisfaction of trafficking people safely across the sky. Millions, he estimates, in his forty-year career. And when Flight 1549 hits the Hudson, his mind is on the 154 he is responsible for. Nothing else.
That is what gives Sully’s hallucinations, or doubts, such power. While gazing out a window at the New York skyline, he imagines another way the crash could have gone. It does not end well. Nor do his dreams. All possible outcomes are devastating.
These are poignant moments, but Eastwood does not underline them. The post-traumatic stress of Flight 1549 relates strongly to the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the image of a low flying plane in Manhattan is enough. Eastwood could have milked that for all it’s worth, but he and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki let their subtext slip out discreetly. Particularly in the culmination of the NTSB investigations: Sully and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) must watch a simulation of the accident — constructed by computers and enacted by people — before listening to the recorded audio from the crash. For these two “re-enactments,” Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern alter the image slightly. For the computer simulation, the look is digital, cold and harsh with flat, fluorescent lighting. For the crash from Sully and Skiles point of view, the image returns to the familiar softer, yellowy look of celluloid. Eastwood tips his hand, one is preferable to the other.
What Capt. Sully did on that cold January day was what Malcolm Gladwell identifies as “thin-slicing.” In his book, Blink: the Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Gladwell studies how it is possible for people to make a correct decision with very little information to go off of. His conclusion: through experience, one can immediately discern a pattern within chaos and react accordingly. Flying and safety are Sully’s whole life and when the time came, he reacted the only way he could: correctly.