Tom Hanks, Chesley Sullenberger Hail ‘Common Humanity’ of Clint Eastwood’s ‘Sully’

Sully Tom Hanks Clint Eastwood
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood’s latest movie, “Sully,” is landing at an opportune time for feel-good entertainment.

The picture, centering on the 2009 miracle landing of a U.S. Airways jetliner on the frigid Hudson River in New York City after the plane ran into a flock of geese, is more unapologetically optimistic than anything the 86-year-old veteran filmmaker has directed in recent memory.

“In the political atmosphere we’re in, there are an awful lot of points being made on [the notion that] you can’t count on people and institutions because they’re all broken — that none of them work,” said Tom Hanks, who portrays pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in Warner Bros.’ Sept. 9 release. “Well, that’s nonsense. They’re not all broken. And you can still have faith in them. And, in that regard, I think this movie makes a really strong case.”

Ryan Melgar for Variety

In Los Angeles to promote the film, Sullenberger is diving into the kind of publicity tsunami he treated gingerly when he was first thrust into the public eye on Jan. 15, 2009. Today, the 65-year-old aviator makes his living mostly as a motivational speaker. He does not bat an eye at back-to-back-to-back media interviews. More than six years removed from his last professional flight, he deems himself “thrilled” at the movie that Eastwood, Hanks, and company have created.

“I wanted that sense of our common humanity to be a big, underlying current in the film, and it really is,” Sullenberger told Variety. “This happened at a time, after the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, when it seemed like everything was going wrong. People were wondering if everything was about self-interest and greed. They were doubting human nature. Then all these people acted together, selflessly, to get something really important done. In a way, I think it gave everyone a chance to have hope, at a time when we all needed it.”

In the months after Sullenberger brought the crippled jetliner and its 155 passengers to a safe landing on the Hudson, he suffered from nightmares, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. He says he found it comforting to receive the support of a nation, in the form of some 50,000 emails and letters.

He recalled that in one correspondence, a woman from Sacramento, Calif., talked about how she had lost her job and her house and suffered through the death of her father and a close friend. “Quite frankly, I lost my faith, and you, sir, gave it back,” the woman wrote.

Sullenberger said the note “meant more to me than anything.”

“Sully” relives the pilot’s split-second decisions after the Airbus A320’s engines flame out following a hit by a flock of Canadian geese. He flips to auxiliary power, aborts a return to LaGuardia International Airport, and works through possible landing spots with ground control.

“I think it gave everyone a chance to have hope, at a time when we all needed it.”
Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

But the film also captures a wider cast of everyday heroes: co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), who plows down an emergency checklist; three flight attendants who calm passengers and instruct the how to brace for impact; ferry boat captains chugging to the rescue without waiting for commands from above; and passengers who remain calm as they wait to be bailed out from the nearly frozen river.

Those scenes from the day of the crisis are interwoven with glimpses of the youthful Sullenberger learning to fly a crop duster as a teenager in Texas, then graduating to the Air Force. But, as the character notes in the film, it’s not his career in the air, but 208 seconds over New York that will make or break his reputation.

the project got its start with the adaptation by Todd Komarnicki (“Perfect Stranger”) of Sullenberger’s memoir “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” co-authored with Jeffrey Zaslow. Eastwood initially was said to be unsure about what he could bring to the project, until he read about the aftermath of the incident, and the second-guessing of Sullenberger’s actions.

The $60 million movie, produced by Eastwood, Frank Marshall, Allyn Stewart, and Tim Moore, with Kipp Nelson and Bruce Berman of Village Roadshow Pictures, was co-financed by Warner Bros., Village Roadshow, and RatPac-Dune Entertainment, and shot over five weeks on location in New York, Atlanta, and the back lots at Warners and Universal. The “Sully” crew floated a real Airbus jet on Falls Lake at Universal, to be backed later by green-screen images of the Hudson.

Eastwood included some of the real-life rescuers in the river scenes. “That was in the spirit of Sully saying, ‘Everyone did their job that day,’” said Hanks. “If you were there that day, you could come and be part of the shoot, and what was going to be a part of the popular record of what happened that day.”

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The spine of the film’s narrative became the National Transportation Safety Board’s hearings into the forced water landing. “Sully” takes creative license by collapsing the time frame — making it appear the sessions came immediately, when they were held more than a year after Flight 1549 went down.

“For me, the real conflict came after,” Eastwood said, “with the investigative board questioning his decisions, even though he’d saved so many lives.”

The director disdains over-intellectualizing the stories he puts on screen, but in many of his films, he has taken a look into the soul of America. In “Unforgiven” he examined bloodlust; in “Gran Torino,” bigotry and forgiveness; and in “American Sniper,” our ambivalence about war. In “Sully,” it’s how we deal with a crisis.

Eastwood’s upbeat view of the events on the Hudson creates a wave of good feeling, not just for Sully, but for his flight crew, scores of rescuers, the passengers who survived with hardly a scratch, and even the investigators who turned from potential villains into grudging admirers.

Hanks seconds the idea of “Sully” resurrecting the notion of America as a “can do” place.

“If ‘Sully’ resonates in the broader sociological sense,” Hanks said, “I think it’s because it’s an example of our institutions actually living up to their responsibilities. I think people are ready for that.”