Frank Farley, PhD
A review of Sully, Director Clint Eastwood, 2016
On January 15, 2009, a fully-loaded Airbus 320 airliner Flight 1549 of U S Airways with 155 passengers landed on the Hudson River in the heart of New York City. In one of the most daring, risk-taking examples of aviation adventure on record, the landing was successful and all passengers and crew survived. There is almost no comparable event in the modern history of commercial flight. The aftermath of this event, with the iconic photo of the passengers standing on the wings of the plane awaiting their turn to board rescue boats, became ‘psychological’ very quickly, with most media coverage lauding the event as a “Miracle on the Hudson” and the pilot, 42 year flying veteran Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger a miracle maker, or on the other hand it being questioned as unnecessary risk-taking by Sullenberger when nearby airports allegedly were within reach and accessible, and a ‘crash landing’ on a river being a very dangerous decision.
Into this mélange of miracle-making media steps a Hollywood icon and miracle-maker of his own, Clint Eastwood, whose oeuvre stands frame-by-frame with the best that American cinema has produced. Based on the 2009 book ‘Highest Duty: My Search For What Really Matters’ by Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, and with the brilliant casting of legendary actor Tom Hanks as Sullenberger, who physically looks like a Sullenberger identical twin, Eastwood directs the film ‘Sully’ through the labyrinth of a veteran pilot’s cognition and emotion under uncertainty, the process of fast-thinking in conditions of impossibly high risk where a bird strike (a flock of Canada geese) on the plane enroute from LaGuardia to Charlotte, NC, leads to Sully’s decision that both engines are dead and he must maneuver to ground immediately as without power Flight 1549 will crash. Sully and his rock-solid co-pilot Jeffery Skiles (a nice low-key portrayal by actor Aaron Eckhart) are bombarded with information from air-traffic control as to alternative airports in the vicinity and available runways to use there, but Sully sees in line-of-sight the physical obstacles that are getting closer and closer as he loses altitude—the high-rise structures of a great city—and he is convinced that both his engines are totally dead and no restoration of function is possible and he will shortly crash into those structures if he tries to divert to a nearby airport. He must calibrate the risk rapidly, he does it, and heads for the Hudson! Luckily the section he ‘lands’ on has no boat traffic in front of him and in an amazing movie crash sequence hits the water keeping the nose up enough for a safe ‘landing’ and conversion of the plane into a 155 passenger boat! It is hard to imagine any action film-maker doing a more realistic re-construction of that amazing event, depicting the calming effect of the calm Sully as he walks among passengers telling them what to do as water pours in and helping some get clothes for freezing weather from overhead bins, and the effectiveness of the first-responders.
Eastwood, who not only directed and co-produced this film at 86 years of age, but also wrote the theme song to accompany it, focuses on character and cognition as central concepts, portraying the profound importance of Sully’s calm unflappable character, his capacity to bring to bear his implicit knowledge of flight (e.g., sound of engines as well as dashboard data) based on “a million passengers safely carried” and his ability to handle risk and decision under uncertainty.
A major part of the film is the post-landing inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board, some members of whom attempt to demonstrate through flight-recording information, modeling and flight simulators that Sully had made the wrong decision, that the left engine could still be rendered functional, it had gone on ‘idle,’ and that he could have safely gotten the plane to a nearby airport, not putting 155 lives at risk and not basically losing the plane (they also questioned his personal life, digging for psychological problems, e.g., home life, any drinking, etc., but finding nothing. Sully talks many times by phone throughout this period to his wife, played by Laura Linney, asking after their children, etc., but little is developed in the film about that relationship). Through-out the hearing and meetings with government officials, Sully argues calmly that they are, in using their computer models, excising the human factor, the implicit cognition of a deeply experienced pilot. His view was that the left engine the government argued on the basis of available flight data could still function could not function based on his implicit understanding as a human operator. His reputation was on the line in a final somewhat testy public hearing which he arranged, though he remained calm throughout. The instant engine had separated from the plane on impact, but it had just been found in the Hudson, and the highly anticipated data from analysis of the engine was about to be revealed. The results supported Sully! That engine had been rendered entirely inoperable along with the other engine by the bird strike. The ‘trial’ of a hero was over!
Real world psychology triumphed over laboratory models and simulations, and a master navigator of an unsafe space was vindicated. Eastwood ends this masterpiece with several actual passengers from Flight 1549 standing with the real Sully, calling-out the number of their seat on that amazing flight. It was a remarkably moving moment, capping a magnificent film where psychology was in the driver’s seat and a hero was vindicated.
Sullenberger, C, & Zaslow, J. (2009). Highest duty: My search for what really matters. New York: William Morrow.