MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: (4 out of 5 reels)
The story of the Miracle on the Hudson and its protagonist Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger has already entered into pantheon of American legends. During an interview shortly after the event, Katie Couric asked the suddenly famous pilot, “Are you a hero?” For most Americans, the obvious answer is “Yes”—but for some, including the man himself, there is doubt about the assertion.
The January 15, 2009 incident in real time was not, in fact, terribly dramatic. It certainly was not prolonged. Less than thirty minutes passed from when the plane took off at LaGuardia Airport to when every passenger and crew was safely out of the water. Despite the misgivings, it surely seems that Sully is indeed an American hero, although of a type not often recognized.
It goes without saying that director Clint Eastwood is a master storyteller. At eight-six, he is still making a movie every two years and the quality only seems to be getting better. Sully actually begins after the emergency water landing, when the FAA and US Airways begin their initial investigation and analysis. There were some questions about Sully’s decision to ditch into the Hudson River rather than attempting to return to an airport, questions undoubtedly asked with insurance and lawsuits under consideration. Did Sully needlessly endanger 155 lives and ruin a multi-million dollar airplane?
As the film progresses, the details of that winter day are slowly revealed. Since the outcome of the flight is already known, this is good way to keep tension throughout the story while examining aspects that might otherwise seem uninteresting. For his part, Sully, played by Tom Hanks, is convinced he made the right choice, even if computer simulations might indicate otherwise. The airline representatives are certainly antagonists, but they aren’t monsters and they are willing, with the “help” of the pilot’s union, to give Sully a fair hearing. It just seems too good to be true, but maybe that’s because what happened had never happened before.
Watching Sully, two other fantastic films came to mind that are similar visually and thematically: United 93 and Captain Phillips (both directed by Paul Greengrass). Those films involved hijacked vessels and ordinary citizens being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. In these cases, the people involved were heroes in the traditional sense, choosing to act when they did not have to and saving lives in the process. Like St. Joan of Arc or St. George, they faced the dragon of moral evil and conquered.
Sully is not that kind of hero. Facing the natural evil of multiple bird strikes, he stayed calm and followed protocol. He drew upon thousands of hours of flight experience to make a calculated decision and to see it through. He performed an ordinary task with great care, saving as many lives as possible—including those on the ground. In this way, he is a hero more in the vein of St. Thérèse of Lisieux or St. Therese of Calcutta, who advocated the “little way” to holiness. He did what he was trained for, and, this time, it worked out perfectly. Not all of us will be like the passengers of Flight 93, but all us can be like Sully, dutifully giving every aspect of our lives over to God and trusting in his providence. In this way, even if the birds never came, the plane landed safely in Charlotte, and no one ever heard of Sully, he would still be a hero—a man performing his duties with care, diligence, and without concern for fame or recognition.
In the final moments of the film, Sully is vindicated and it becomes clear the right choice was made. Yet, even then, Sully refuses to accept the mantle of hero. Rather, he praises everyone else. He praises his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), who guided him through ditching directives. He praises the airline stewards, who calmed the passengers and got everyone out. He praises the responders without whom some would have frozen to death in the near freezing water. “It took all of us,” he says, “working together to make it.”
With that line, Eastwood has created the perfect movie to commemorate the recent anniversary of September 11, marking a harrowing and horrific event during which Americans of all stripes came together to help one another with selfless sacrifice. In an election season that has, at times, brought to light what is most broken and troubling in America, it’s helpful to be reminded of what is best. The common man is alive and well, doing ordinary things extraordinarily, usually unnoticed but once in a while getting the praise (and the movie) he deserves.