SULLY: THE MAN IN THE AIR

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Sully is an American hero. We should cherish that simple reassuring fact until the end of time that such things can be true and real in this day and age. Yet Chesley Sullenberger is also a man, a quiet professional of considerable skill and talent but a human being with flaws and doubts like the rest of us. Clint Eastwood’s film accepts both these truths can co-exist but has something to say about how each responded to the events of January 15, 2009.

On January 15, 2009 Flight 1549 took off from La Guardia airport in New York City. At 2,000 feet before levelling out of ascent multiple birds struck the aircraft disabling both engines immediately. They never got higher than 2,800 feet with the major urban population of New York City beneath them. In 200 seconds the plane had landed on the Hudson river, a feat of piloting in itself which was truly extraordinary. From the point that the plane hit the water to the point where all survivors were on the pier was 24 minutes. To have had anybody survive such a landing would have been remarkable. It was in the dead of winter in the northern hemisphere, the conditions meant that the odds of at least somebody perishing were extremely high. Five individuals were injured or hospitalised but no one perished. All 155 souls on board survived the water landing and immediately the story of the Miracle on the Hudson raced across the world. The incident was the inverse of September 11, 2001. An incident involving an aircraft and New York City where good prevailed, professionalism and heroism saved the day, people were rescued not murdered.

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At the centre of it all an airline pilot who had served in the United States Air Force, a Texan who had learnt to fly at 16 in a crop duster over clear prairie skies and had that cool 70s moustache from the golden age of air travel. In other words-America. Knee deep in casualty reports from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the fall out from the Global Financial Crisis here was the story New York, America and the world could feel good about. The movie Sully understands this but also understands that the word survivor is not used randomly, everybody on board went through an ordeal and they would happily have never gone through it if given the choice.

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Saying Tom Hanks portrayal here is his most low key does not give credit to his Captain John H. Miller or Jim Lovell but Sully is a very shy man at heart and Hanks embodies that. Not a perfect physical match for the real man American’s favourite everyman movie star was the inevitable choice and the role comes at the right moment for his age and in his career. There could’ve been more interesting choices but none better. The rest of the cast is superb, Aaron Eckhart is so laid back as co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles that it may be taken for granted how good his performance is. Looking more like his real life counterpart than Hanks, Eckhart is laidback but more expressive than his co-star. Skiles had only just qualified on the Airbus but was a Captain in his own right demoted due to airline cutbacks (basically experienced and overqualified for the job he was doing). A lot of focus and attention has gone the way of the man who said “My aircraft” and took the controls and not much to the co-pilot and Skiles has weathered that with good humour and grace but Sully will be the first to tell you there were two men in that cockpit that day and both did their jobs superbly. I was pleased to see Skiles as a buttress of support in this film and a calm assertive figure in the narrative. Watch a scene where Skiles makes it easy for Sully to meet him downstairs. Eckhart is so natural as the character that beneath a brown moustache long term fans of the actor have failed to recognise him. Possibly too low key for an Oscar run hopefully some lauded film critics society will tap Eckhart for his performance here and give him an award.

 

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Eastwood always an actor at his best when dialled down gets similar performances form a wealth of character actors including Molly Hagan, Ann Cusack, Jamey Sheridan, Valerie Mahaffey but Laura Linney who shined against type in Mystic River is wasted here. Reduced to playing scenes of calling each other across the other side of the country Hanks and Linney do well. We get that his wife is part of his strength, we feel their isolation and we see how disruptive the investigation and media attention was to the family. These scenes convey a lot that is important to know but they are conventional wife scenes in these kinds of films. It would be fair to suspect there was more to it in real life; Sully’s wife is in her own right a strong, layered and inspiring woman. Image result for sully filmYou won’t get half of that from this film and that’s nothing against Linney. Faring not much better are the air hostesses who played the biggest role in evacuating the plane in a timely and safe manner. Their professionalism is conveyed in telling body language. As the lights fade out in the plane they move forward with a smile telling people to keep their seatbelts on before surmising to each other we’re turning back. But blink and you’ll miss just how important it was that Doreen Welsh (Molly Hagan a long way from Herman’s Head) wounded by the crash with water streaming into the back of the plane got passengers to turn around head out through the forward exits. More justice is done to the calm professional and earnest work done by FAA Air Traffic Control Specialist Patrick Harten. Harten’s scenes are done with minimal fuss and lots of close ups on the actor Patch Darragh. Calm, professionalism, minimal. Those words get used a lot to describe the actions and demeanour of people in a crisis who come through. It’s difficult to not repeat them throughout a review of this film or a recollection of this story. These people were calm and professional and did their jobs with a minimum of fuss.

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As filmmaker Clint Eastwood’s films often bear these hallmarks too, the ‘action’ sequences cut all music, bear few flourishes with camera movement but have a grounded real world approach. Compare the nightmare Sully has at the beginning to the actual water landing later in the picture. There is no music played, the insides of the aircraft have been painstakingly recreated to be as true to what was there on the day as possible. The effect is to put you in that moment as best they can and to not do anything that will remind you – you are watching a film. Weeks after Suicide Squad, it is a joy to see effects in service to story and action that is both moving and involving. If the special effects house has done a decent if not mind blowing recreation of the flight then several practical effects cannot be faulted. Considering how difficult it is to recreate such a scene that few saw the achievement of the effects is in keeping with the tone of the film.

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Clint Eastwood is 86 years old this year and it’s fair to suggest maybe that every film he makes he is putting forward his views on the world as a parting message. The director has been doing that since at least Unforgiven and maybe even all the way back to Play Misty for Me and he’s rebelled against expectations again and again. White Hunter Black Heart was not a jovial biopic about a beloved Hollywood director making his greatest film, at the height of Rambo mania Heartbreak Ridge was mostly a service comedy and surprisingly romantic, Gran Torino which promised Eastwood reclaiming his star persona had something to say about the cyclical nature of violence and Million Dollar Baby was not just a heart-warming sports movie. Sully is not just about two pilots landing a passenger jet on a river. Clint Eastwood is not a director known for his subtlety but his images have haunted throughout the years. He chooses exactly the second the first ferry arrived to rescue the first passenger off the wing to play music. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre I attended at that moment, subtle can be overrated sometimes. Hanks plays Sully’s relief at hearing the magical number of survivors in the hospital with a noticeable turn of his face and holding back tears. Yet look afterwards when Hanks walks over to a window and holds his tie around his shoulders like a man finishing a long day at the office.  Image result for sully and skilesSee Eastwood line up a shot of Hanks ascending the ferry stairs with the plane in the background. Some of these choices are more nuanced and when they are not they are truly moving. The adults are making a blockbuster today kids so just sit back down and learn a thing or two.

A couple of themes resonate, Eastwood celebrates the human factor of what the cockpit crew did, when technology failed them, rather than going through the PAM or worrying about the odds Sullenberger ‘eyeballed’ it. Eastwood wants to celebrate a man making the call in the heat of the moment and backing himself and places the Safety Board investigating the landing as villains who don’t know what it is to have been there. Their hard 180 reverses throughout the film are the kind of black hat obviousness that Eastwood is famous for, you may recall how repugnant Hilary Swank’s family was in Million Dollar Baby.

Eastwood also plays up the dichotomy of a man being celebrated in the media as a hero as he is being torn apart behind closed doors with his reputation, pension, career and life’s work on the line while trying to quietly endure post-traumatic stress. You get the sense despite Katie Couric’s presence that Eastwood doesn’t think much of the media. At one point a journalist stands on the river and reports live to the camera that the people on the plane located behind him “Have minutes to live.” It’s a subtle dig by Eastwood standards but the message is clear “Look at you standing there doing nothing.” Theodore Roosevelt once said “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly.

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Eastwood clearly celebrates Sully as the man in the arena but he places alongside him Skiles, Welsh, Donna Dent, Diane Higgins, Harten, the ferry crews, every passenger on that plane, the members of the NYPD, FDNY and USCG, the nurses, doctors and ambulance staff. The best of New York, of America, of humanity. These are things to be cherished and not to be lost as people who grew up in dustbowls, defeated Nazis and built the jet age give way to a generation who have never known the Middle East without war, the proliferation of unstable employment, reduced economic growth and social isolation. The world is troubled, as it was and always will be but we can meet any challenge if we remember who we are. At our best we’re Chesley Sullenberger and his team. Heroes.

-Lloyd Marken

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20 comments on “SULLY: THE MAN IN THE AIR

  1. GP Cox says:

    The Eastwood/Hanks idea of a collaboration is what first drew me to be interested in this one. Sully is definitely a story worth telling too. A strong, intelligent man, with a troubled aircraft and he didn’t lose a soul – his legacy is written.

    • Lloyd Marken says:

      It is indeed, I highly recommend his book. Wonderful piece of work that sheds more light on his family and character. The man is all class. I wonder if that’s why I got so emotional with some scenes. The book read as something screaming to be made as a film. I’m surprised to find Hanks being mentioned as a legend in the same vein as Eastwood. It’s deserved but it just shows time is passing.

  2. feralc4t says:

    “Any landing where nobody dies is a good one”

  3. beetleypete says:

    I have read mixed reviews of this film, Lloyd. Your own is by far the most informative, and the most positive. I am not a fan of Tom Hanks, at least not since ‘Big’. I have never warmed to his style, and when I watch him in films, I often sit thinking about who I would have cast instead.
    But I cannot deny he has talent, as well as a huge following. Most film-goers love him, and flock to see films because he is in them. Perhaps as he grows older, I will appreciate him more. As for Eastwood still producing such work at the age of 86, I can only give him my admiration.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  4. Lloyd, what a fantastic review. Yours is nuanced and full of associations I like such as the Teddy R. quote. When I saw it this past weekend, I was impressed having read some disfavorable reviews. Eastwood has a great way of instilling patriotism and reminds from the old school what real men do –they have integrity, they work hard, they walk the walk instead of babble on about things.Their women are strong and back them up. Relationships are traditional and they lean on one another. Eastwood picks stories where his heroes could be you or me and in the constant slap of negative media and clownish authority-types, it’s the real heart of a man living a life serving and protecting that demands the most respect. I loved the film.

  5. a gray says:

    Lloyd, you review is very interesting, but the “facts” presented in the movie have been disputed by commercial airline pilots who were flying at the time of the incident. One of those pilots recently sent me the following:

    CLINT EASTWOOD GROSSLY MISSTATES FACTS IN SULLY MOVIE

    Factual misstatements in movie trailers:

    “Until I read the script, I didn’t know the investigative board (NTSB) was trying to paint the picture that he had done the wrong thing. They were kind of railroading.
    -Clint Eastwood in Promotional Trailer for Sully”

    “For those who are the focus on the investigation, the intensity of it is immense (the process was) inherently adversarial with professional reputations absolutely in the balance.
    -Chesley Sullenberger, The New York Times”

    “By now we all know the story of the January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549. A flock of Canada geese, flying above their assigned New York Terminal Control Area altitude, met their maker inside the twin engines of an Airbus A320-214 piloted by Captain Chesley Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles. Unable to return to base or an alternate airport, the pilots correctly made an emergency landing on the Hudson River. Final score, US Airways 155, Canada Geese 0.”
    “With $60 million in hand, getting those facts right was no problem for Eastwood’s production team. Unfortunately, the public is now beginning to learn, there is a very good reason why it took Eastwood nearly eight years to go beyond the true story and discover what no one else knew, that the NTSB was trying to railroad Captain Sullenberger.”

    Actual events:

    It turns out that events, dialogue and key scenes in the film never happened. As the NTSB hearing links below show, Eastwood has apparently succeeded in brainwashing himself with the help of screenwriter Todd Komarnicki.

    After an extensive analysis of the wreckage and simulations of the flight conducted by accident investigators with the cooperation of the airline, Airbus, the pilots, flight attendants, and passengers, the National Transportation Safety Board convened a Washington D.C. hearing on the event in June 2009. Chief Investigator Robert Benzon told the board that after the bird strike:

    “The captain soon concluded that a landing in the river was the safest alternative available. During the course of the investigation, flight simulations were conducted. These flight simulations revealed that a successful return to LaGuardia or a diversion to Teterboro (New Jersey) Airport was not assured.”

    In their human performance summary of the accident, the NTSB’s Dr. Katherine Wilson and Captain David Helson praised Sullenberger and Skiles “excellent crew resource management.”

    NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt, a former US Airways Airbus 320, pilot thanked Sullenberger for “representing the piloting profession as you do.”

    In May 2010 the NTSB’s final report, based on 20,000 hours of investigation, “validated the Captain’s decision to ditch into the Hudson River saying that it “provided the highest probability that the accident would be survivable.

    “Contributing to the survivability of the accident was the crew resource management between the captain and first officer, which allowed them to maintain control of the airplane, increasing the survivability of the impact with the water.”

    In his memoir Highest Duty with Jeffrey Zaslow, the basis for Eastwood’s big money maker, Sullenberger agrees. He writes that he was “buoyed by the fact that investigators determined that Jeff (Skiles) and I made appropriate choices at every step.”

    According to the NTSB no one on the Eastwood/Warner Brothers production team bothered to do fact checking with the federal agency. This appears to have been an oversight, considering that NTSB officials spent years fighting for some of the key safety improvements and procedures contributing to the survival of all 155 aboard flight 1549.

    Screenwriter Komarnicki, perhaps best known as the producer of Santa driven comedy elf, is celebrating Christmas a bit early this year thanks to his ability to rewrite history and dramatize incidents that never happened.

    Warner Brothers damage control experts, Eastwood, Sullenberger and Hanks can’t explain why Komarnicki and Eastwood’s narrative invent a series of events that do not show up in the 560 page transcript of the NTSB’s three day June 2009 hearing on Flight 1549. It’s hard to believe that Sullenberger who covers aviation stories for CBS and is universally recognized as a white hat in aviation safety, would not have caught these obvious and unforgivable mistakes in the script.

    Eastwood’s revisionism portrays agency investigators as no nothing amateurs eager to smear the pilots. The embarrassing and inexcusable factual errors begin when Hanks , playing Sully, wakes a union rep insisting that he put in an early morning call to Airbus in France.

    The “nervous” US Airways Captain wants the pilots in Toulouse to speed up simulations of the Flight 1549 landing pattern at LaGuardia and Teterboro. This phone call never happened nor did Airbus pilots rush through the simulations portrayed in the film. In fact this sequence never happened.

    At the hearing, bullying NTSB investigators (perhaps to avoid the possibility of libeling them, their names have been changed) make the case that Sully and Skiles could have kept their passengers high and dry by landing their plane at LaGuardia or Teterboro. A pair of Airbus simulations, supposedly made available for the hearing thanks to pressure from Sully’s union, demonstrate they could have made it back to LaGuardia or landed at Teterboro.

    In the Eastwood version, Sully brilliantly persuades the hearing officers to phone Airbus and ask them to instantly rerun both simulations. In the film this is done with a realistic 35 second delay necessary for the pilots to assess the bird strike triggered crisis at dangerously low altitude.

    When the hearing reconvenes after a short recess, the French simulator pilots show a new more realistic scenario that plane could not have reached either airport. This is portrayed as a humiliating defeat for the big bad wolves in the NTSB lair.

    The fact is, as Eastwood, Hanks and Warner Brothers know, none of this ever happened. Tom Haueter, who directed the NTSB’s Office of Safety, at the time it oversaw the Flight 1549 investigation and final report says:

    “We never got any pushback from Sullenberger. The movie’s portrayal of the French rerun of the simulation of the crash never happened at our hearing.

    “The movie makes it look like Sullenberger forced us to do additional simulations during the hearing. We had done those simulations months before and he had nothing to do with them.

    “We concluded before the hearing that he was right, that he made the best decision he could have at the time, that he could not have made it back to either airport.”

    What about the scene in Eastwood’s film where an investigator challenges Sullenberger on whether or not one of Flight 1549’s engines was potentially capable of producing enough power to get the plane back to LaGuardia?

    “Not true,” says Haueter, now an independent safety consultant in Great Falls, Virginia. “They couldn’t have produced full power if they tried. They weren’t going to fly anymore.

    “We concluded that they made the best decision they could have made. They could have tried to do x, y and z and land the plane in Central Park but that would not have been a bright idea.”

    “We believe 99.9 percent of all pilots in that situation would have done the same thing.”

    Another inexplicable Eastwood change was playing the cockpit voice recorder during the film, an event that triggers heartfelt words from the investigation team.

    “We never played the cockpit voice recorder during the hearing, as shown in the film,” says Haueter.

    Missing from the script is the fact that some of the NTSB’s safety recommendations resulting from the Flight 1539 investigation and hearing have been implemented to the benefit of American airline passengers every day, including people who work for Warner Brothers. Eastwood doesn’t spend one second on this side of the story.

    Should he, Tom Hanks (Sullenberger) and Aaron Eckhart (as Skiles) win Oscar gold , their Hollywood victory will clearly be at the expense of the “bureaucrats” at the NTSB falsely accused of trying to sully the flight crew’s reputation.

    Damage has already been done as some fans of the film stream out of theaters cursing a diligent and highly praised federal agency that has made many life saving significant contributions to aviation safety.

    “I understand the need for a movie to make money,” says Haueter “But I have gotten a lot of calls from pilots blasting the NTSB who believe the false story shown in the film is absolutely real. This is going to be detrimental to future accident investigations because people who see the film think they can’t trust the NTSB.

    “There are intelligent people who have seen the film who think it is absolutely accurate, that this is the way we are doing business. It says we don’t trust the pilots . We are asked:

    “‘Why should we trust you people, you are only a shill for management trying to do in pilots. You are trying to make us look bad, why should we talk to you.’

    “The people I have talked to from pilot unions who participated in this investigation are shocked by the movie. Unfortunately for the NTSB, it is not going to be pretty.

    “I have not heard anything from Capitol Hill but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are getting calls from Congressmen and Senators asking what is going on.

    Hanks and Eckhart’s convincing performances as Sully and Skiles have made the problem worse.

    “People see the NTSB hearing scene,” says Haueter, “and they absolutely believe 100 percent that this is what happened, that every word is true.”

    It’s not going to be easy to undo the fictional dialogue in the film that has already crossed the $94 million mark worldwide, blasting away competition like Blair Witch and Bridget Jones’s Baby.

    “From the day the movie came out,” says Hauter, “I have had people call and ask, ‘how does the NTSB run an investigation this way.’

    “People who really know me say, ‘wow, it’s a movie, it’s not real.’

    ” But other people think that the film is telling it like it was, that we were out to screw Sullenberger.”

    “Eastwood believed it was true. I find it interesting that when they made the movie they never approached the NTSB.

    “Sullenberger knows what happened. You would think he would have said something.”

    ***

    FSI Contributing Editor Roger Rapoport is the producer of the feature film Pilot Error. He can be reached at 231 720-0930.

    Copyright Roger Rapoport, All Rights Reserved

    Here are video links to the three day NTSB public hearing on US Airways Flight 1549.
    http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/Pages/2009-usairways1549.aspx. Video appears under “related video” on the left.

    The accident docket, documents 110, 111 and 112 presents a transcript of the hearing.
    http://dms.ntsb.gov/pubdms/search/hitlist.cfm?docketID=47230.

    NTSB Report on Flight 1549
    Executive Summary
    http://www.ntsb.gov/investigations/AccidentReports/Pages/AAR1003.asp.

    • Lloyd Marken says:

      Thank you for posting this mate. I was aware of a few things but your comment is most illuminating. I did not remember the trials of the investigations from Sullenberger’s book so was surprised to see this aspect in the trailers. I found Sullenberger’s quote as one where words were chosen very carefully. I’ve also seen an interview where Hanks says they looked at transcripts but access to such videos would not be possible when Eastwood became exasperated from questions regarding research from Katie Couric. As mentioned in my review I saw clearly Eastwood seeing the need for a villain for the purposes of his narrative and using the NTSB. The real life Sully’s insistence that the names be changed of the investigators smells less of fearing libel and more of a keen understanding of the power of cinema. We routinely now get films based on true events that regardless of using real people’s names or not – do not tell their stories. The Butler, The Social Network, The Imitation Game and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot immediately come to mind. My knowledge of the facts made it difficult for me to enjoy The Butler on it’s own merits whereas it had little effect on the others I mentioned or Sully. That can be a personal thing I guess and if personally your knowledge lessens the experience of Sully for you the way it did for me and The Butler well then you have my sympathy. I am sorry for the real problems this has caused for the NSTB and pilots and I would urge people to always be suspicious of what is real in Hollywood biopics. There are great sites now that will put forward comparisons of what really and didn’t really happen for new releases. As for the film Sully itself, well I enjoyed it very much.

  6. I am still waiting to see this, the main attraction for me has to be Eastwood-Hanks, more especially as it is obvious that Clint can not make too many more movies and every one should therefor be ‘important’

    • Lloyd Marken says:

      I think you’re right mate. Even J. Edgar felt like him saying something about mortality and unrequited homosexual love. A flawed film I found he shot it just right the finding of Hoover’s body. It was very moving. I wonder how much mortality plays on his mind these days. Quite a bit I think. I really enjoyed Sully and hope you do too.

  7. dbmoviesblog says:

    A very interesting read. I am enjoying reading your blog!

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