Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks bring the Miracle on the Hudson to life in Sully
The name of Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger is instantly familiar, not only to Americans, but to people around the world.
In January 2009, he was the pilot of US Airways flight 1549, which lost both of its engines when they were hit by a flock of geese while taking off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
With just minutes to act, Sully successfully landed the Airbus A320 on the Hudson River, saving all 155 souls on board – not to mention potential casualties had the aircraft hit the ground in the city.
The event, which became known as the “Miracle on the Hudson” is the subject of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film, the biopic Sully.
After making American Sniper, which was a big hit, the 86-year-old actor and director wasn’t initially convinced there was a film to be made from Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty.
“This guy Sullenberger did a fabulous job landing the plane,” he says. “All 155 lived. Where’s the conflict there?”
Instead, he found the drama in the fact that Sully (played by Tom Hanks) and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) were forced to defend their actions during an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board that threatened to destroy their reputations.
“Sometimes you have to look deeper,” says Eastwood, who discovered that Sully lived close to Oakland, California, near to where both he and Hanks come from.
Another attraction for Eastwood was his interest in aviation – he has been a helicopter pilot for 35 years.
“I was always fascinated by it as a kid, though I never followed through with it until I was an adult,” he says.
Eastwood even survived a plane crash in 1951, when a Douglas AD bomber he was travelling on, during a brief spell in the army, went down in the ocean near Point Reyes.
“Aviation is very exacting,” he says. “You need an exacting person, somebody who is really good with detail and who lives by the rules – and Sully is that kind of guy.
“He didn’t live by the rules in making the decision about landing in the Hudson, because he’d been through training. He never imagined himself doing that, I don’t think. He might have thought about it, at some time in his life, but all of a sudden you have to make a lot of things happen in a few seconds. And that’s what the story is about.”
Watching the ultra-modest Sully react under pressure, one of the themes of the film is what it means to be a hero.
“It is a ridiculously overused word, because it’s a shorthand, somehow, for accomplishment,” says Hanks, who believes Sully – like any pilot – is a hero for simply flying safely day in, day out. “Is he a bigger hero than the frogmen who jumped out of helicopters to pull people out of the water? They’re heroes too. There was an awful lot of heroism on display that day.”
Hanks had met Sully shortly after the Miracle on the Hudson, at a party during Oscar season. “He was like a combination of Elvis and John Wayne,” the actor says, with a laugh. But when it came time to portray him on film, Hanks witnessed that “exacting” side that Eastwood speaks of.
“He had the entire script and it was noted, highlighted, underlined, dog-eared, paper-clipped ... he had a lot of things he wanted to tell me about what was wrong with this script,” he says.
With these details ironed out, Sully the movie became a reality – with Eastwood recreating the crash-landing and evacuation with genuine emotion and terror.
“There were a lot of ‘what ifs?’ But he [Sully] did the right thing – a water-landing can be done if it’s executed right,” says the director.
Not that the real-life Sully is likely to get big-headed as the focal point of a major motion picture.
“As Tom says in the final part of the picture: ‘We all just did our jobs’ – and that’s the way Sully is,” says Eastwood.
Sully is in cinemas now
Published: September 7, 2016 04:00 AM