”When something’s going wrong, there are people out there like Capt. Sullenberger who will risk a lot—their time, their efforts, even their lives—on behalf of others. The movie is called ‘Sully,’ but it’s really about the best in all of us.”
‘On January 15, 2009, the world witnessed the “Miracle on the Hudson” when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger glided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 aboard. However, even as Sully was being heralded by the public and the media for his unprecedented feat of aviation skill, an investigation was unfolding that threatened to destroy his reputation and his career.
Now Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood brings the story to the big screen, from a screenplay by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book Highest Duty by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, with Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
Moments after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, a flock of birds strikes US Airways flight 1549, taking out both engines at only 2800 feet and causing an immediate, forced water landing. It is, we will learn, unprecedented. “No one has ever trained for an incident like that,” notes Tom Hanks, speaking as the titular Captain Chesley Sullenberger in director/producer Clint Eastwood’s “Sully.”
Recounting the real events that took place on that cold day in January 2009, the film also explores their very real aftermath.
The plane carried 150 passengers and five crew members, yet not a single life was lost—not in the air, not in the water. But as “Sully” reveals, in the days following what quickly came to be known as the Miracle on the Hudson, the pilot with a record of proficiency, years of experience, and calm in the face of potential catastrophe, would be called upon repeatedly to defend his actions to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
It was that part of the story, the one the world didn’t know, that drew Eastwood to the project.
“Anybody who keeps their wits about them when things are going wrong, who can negotiate the problems without panicking, is someone of superior character and interesting to watch on film. But for me, the real conflict came after, with the investigative board questioning his decisions even though he’d saved so many lives.”
“I’m not an aviator,” says Hanks, “but I know you’re not supposed to be able to make a landing like that. This was a very pragmatic man who understood the realities of what he’d done and what it meant. He will never say he’s a hero, but knowing with confidence that he could make that landing? That was a heroic thing he did. And he paid a price for it.”
That cost was exacted both during the day, when he and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, were being interrogated by the investigative board, and at night, when Sully was haunted by nightmares about what could have happened—what very well might have happened—had he turned that plane around in search of a less watery airfield.
The film, based on Sullenberger and author Jeffrey Zaslow’s book Highest Duty, also focuses largely on the untold story, the details that didn’t make it into those pages.
Producer Allyn Stewart says of initial conversations with Sullenberger, “The second Sully started to give us the details of what happened to him after the event, I realized this was the real architecture of the movie. We found a great screenwriter, Todd Komarnicki, to adapt the book. He’s really good at getting under the skin of a normal guy, and that’s the essence of Sully; he’d be the first one to say he’s simply a man who did his job very well.”
“Sully is a man who prepared his whole life to do this one impossible thing that he didn’t know he was preparing for,” Komarnicki observes. “But when you meet him, after ten minutes with the guy, you understand; you think, ‘Of course he pulled this off and no one else could have.’ But the beauty of this movie is that we’re finally telling the full story. A true story that no one knows but everyone thinks they know? What a great mystery to unfold on screen.”
Producer Frank Marshall says, “After everything the world knew about Sully and the landing, what happened to him after he became instantly famous was fascinating. Todd’s approach to the screenplay was to take a story you’ve heard, like the key elements of that day, and turn it into one you haven’t, giving the audience a real feel of what it was like to be there.”
Another story few people are aware of—one the director himself may have long ago forgotten, but which connects him in a unique way with the subject matter and its subject—came to light when working on “Sully.”
As a young man of 21 in the Army, Eastwood was a passenger on a Navy plane, “catching a free flight from Seattle down to Alameda,” he relates. “It was stormy and we went down off of Point Reyes, California, in the Pacific, and I found myself in the water, swimming a few miles toward shore, thinking, ‘Well, 21’s not as long as a person wants to live.’”
Producer, and Eastwood’s longtime production manager, Tim Moore states, “What’s remarkable is that Clint remembers exactly how the landing was—that the back end went down and they had to get out pretty fast because they thought it was going to sink quickly, and they just started swimming. While I don’t think that was a factor in picking this film, I think the commonalities brought back a lot of memories; it’s certainly interesting that this project found its way to him.”
Though he doesn’t equate his experience with that of the passengers and crew on flight 1549, it did provide a certain perspective for one preparing to direct Sully’s story. “I suppose having been in a similar situation,” Eastwood surmises, “as a pilot I would have chanced a water landing rather than go someplace there’s no runway.”
“Sully was familiar with that area,” the director also notes. “He knew where the helicopter ports and ferryboats were, so he picked the right spot, where everyone could get to them fast. It wouldn’t be like being out in the middle of the ocean; he knew somebody would see them.”
“It was the least bad option,” the man himself, Capt. Sullenberger, states. Having lost thrust in both engines of the A320, he quickly determined that the Hudson River, which runs between New Jersey and Manhattan’s West Side, was their best bet. “There was nowhere else in the entire New York Metropolitan area long enough, wide enough, or smooth enough to land an airliner.”
Looking back on his experience from just seven-and-a-half years ago, able to now put things into perspective, he says, “Part of the emotional context of this story is that it happened in a time in our history when there was worldwide concern on several fronts: it was post-9/11, we had troops in the Middle East, there was the ’08 financial meltdown…people were worried. That this happened in Manhattan and that we survived it, well, I think it gave people hope, even ones who were not directly connected with the flight.”
Not only did the filmmakers choose to embrace the actual surroundings in which the event happened by shooting as much as possible in New York City, they also sought to involve a good number of its citizens who were there that day in the film. This not only meant reaching out to them for research purposes, by talking about what they remember, but also recruiting many who were part of the rescue to reenact their efforts for the cameras. Both air and water rescuers and several Red Cross staff and volunteers returned to the “scene” to recreate their own heroics of the day, reinforcing what Sullenberger himself has observed on many occasions: that the positive outcome was not due just to the swift and steady actions of one, but also the fortitude of many.
“If you’re a fireman, a cop, a soldier, an aviator, heroism is going to be expected of you at any time,” Hanks contends. “To me, a hero is someone who thinks and acts beyond himself in order to make things right for other people. Sully certainly did that, simply by doing his job, by knowing he could make the landing. He did not have time for fear. He had mere seconds to process billions of bits of information, both book-learned and from his own experience, and he proved that he was the guy who was prepared for anything.”
The unassuming man at the controls on January 15, 2009, prefers to recognize the efforts of all involved rather than to be singled out, and he’s happy that this film allows for such recognition. “People came together of their own initiative and did their jobs exceedingly well, and that’s what saved all of our lives,” Capt. Sullenberger says. “And I think that’s why we’ll always remember that day and that flight. We have much to be grateful for and much to celebrate.”
Eastwood states, “Hopefully this picture shows the good result that can come from a bad situation. That when something’s going wrong, there are people out there like Capt. Sullenberger who will risk a lot—their time, their efforts, even their lives—on behalf of others. The movie is called ‘Sully,’ but it’s really about the best in all of us.”