A Review of Sully by Nick Olszyk
MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Four Reels
The story of the Miracle on the Hudson and its protagonist Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger has already entered into mist of American legend like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan. During an interview shortly after the event, Katie Couric asks him, “are you a hero?” For most Americans, the obvious answer is yes, but for some there is doubt about the assertion, including the man himself. The incident in real time is not terribly dramatic. Less than thirty minutes passed from the plane took off at La Guardia airport to when every passenger and crew was safely out of the water. Despite the misgivings, time has shown that Sully is indeed an American hero, though of a type rarely recognized.
It goes without saying that director Clint Eastwood is a master storyteller. At eight-six, he is still making a movie every two years and the quality only seems to be getting better. Sully begins after the event when the FAA and US Airways begin their initial analysis. There is some question regarding his decision to ditch into the Hudson River rather than attempting to return to an airport – no doubt with insurance and lawsuits on the mind. Did Sully needlessly endanger 155 lives and ruin a multi-million dollar machine? As the film progresses, the details of that day are slowly revealed. Since the outcome of the flight is already known, this is good way to keep tension throughout the story while examining aspects that might otherwise be uninteresting. For his part, Sully (Tom Hanks) is convinced he made the right choice, even if computer simulations might say otherwise. The airline representatives are certainly antagonists, but they aren’t monsters and are willing, with the “help” of the pilot’s union, to give Sully a fair hearing. It just seems too good to be true, but maybe that’s because it’s never happened before.
Watching Sully, two other fantastic films came to mind that were similar visually and thematically: United 93 and Captain Phillips (both directed by Paul Greengrass). These films involved hijacked vessels where ordinary citizens were thrust into extraordinary circumstances. In these cases, the people involved were heroes in the traditional sense, choosing to do act when they did not have to and saving lives in the process. Like St. Joan of Arc or St. George, they faced the dragon of moral evil and conquered.
Sully is not that kind hero. Facing the natural evil of a bird strike, he stays calm and follows protocol. He draws on thousands of hours of flight experience to make a calculated decision and see it through. He performs an ordinary task with great care, saving as many lives as possible, including those on the ground. In this way, he is a hero in the same vein as St. Thérèse of Lisieux or St. Therese of Calcutta, who advocated the “little way” to holiness. He did what he was trained for, and, this time, it worked out perfectly. Not all of us will be like the passengers of Flight 93, but all us can be like Sully, dutifully giving every aspect of our lives over to God and trusting in His providence. In this way, if the birds never came, the plane landed safely in Charlotte, and no one ever heard of Sully, he would still be a hero.
In the final moments of the film, he is vindicated and it becomes clear the right choice was made. Yet even then, Sully refuses to accept the mantle of hero. Rather, he praises everyone else. He praises his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), who guided him through ditching directives. He praises the airline stewards, who calmed the passengers and got everyone out. He praises the responders without whom some would have frozen to death in the 36° water. “It took all of us,” he says. “Working together to make it.” With this line, Eastwood has created the perfect movie to commemorate September 11th when Americans of all stripes came together to help one another. In an election season that has brought to light what is worst in America, it’s helpful to be reminded of what is best. The common man is alive and well, doing ordinary things extraordinarily, usually unnoticed but once in a while getting the praise (and the movie) he deserves.
This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on September 22nd, 2016.