The pilot only had a few seconds to think about it.  Then he had to make a fateful decision.  On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) was piloting U.S. Airways flight 1549 out of La Guardia, en route to Charlotte.  Everything looked routine to him and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart).  But suddenly a flock of Canadian geese was upon them, which were sucked into both engines, which then immediately burned up.  Sullenberger and Skiles found themselves without thrust, and descending rapidly.  After a few seconds to try to digest the console information and assess the situation, they contacted air traffic control about the possibility of returning to La Guardia, or possibly another airport nearby.  But by then there just wasn't enough time, or enough altitude.  Captain Sully made the only decision he thought was available to him:  he lands the plane on the Hudson River.  Amazingly, all 155 of the passengers and crew survived.  It's an incredible true story about the quick rescue efforts of the port authority boats and helicopter police, as well as the evacuation of the airplane itself.  It's a poignant picture, those people standing out on both wings with the airplane in the water, and the rest of the passengers clinging to a couple of inflatable life rafts (which actually worked like they were supposed to, as well).  Everyone survived; there were no casualties.  So everybody thank the Lord and their lucky stars and go home, right?

            Wrong, bureaucratic-breath.  Director Clint Eastwood tells the story from the point of view of the calm, stoic Captain suffering from some post-traumatic stress immediately after the incident.  He's already been sequestered by the authorities, who are determined to conduct an immediate investigation.  The way the movie depicts it, Sully wasn't even allowed to go home first.  So he had to talk to his wife, Lorraine (Laura Linney), by phone, and tell her he was OK, just stay home with “the girls” (their two daughters) and everything would be fine.

            Except it wasn't.  Sully was having nightmares, and sometimes even day-mares------moments when he was seeing his plane crashing into the buildings of New York City and exploding in a ball of flame.  Sully flashbacked to his military days, when he was piloting an Air Force fighter jet that had developed engine trouble, and he had to “hot land” it to save both himself and the airplane. 

            This time, of course, the airplane couldn't be saved.  It sunk into the Hudson, much to the chagrin of the insurers of the airline.  The news media began treating Sully as a hero, until it was leaked that the investigators were claiming that the computer simulation of the incident showed that the plane could have turned around to La Guardia successfully.  But that simulation did not take into account the human factor.  The movie has Sully insisting that “real” pilots be involved in the simulation, and that some additional seconds of “reaction and assessment” be added to the simulation scenario.  With those factors, it became clear that Sully somehow instinctively did precisely the right thing, the only thing that would have saved all the passengers and crew.  So he was exonerated.

            Director Eastwood chooses to end the story there, other than a postscript during the credits where we meet the “real” Sully and some of the “real” passengers as they exult in their good fortune together.  It's a true feel-good story.  And for 95 minutes, Director Eastwood lets it tell itself, without further ado.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What's your scariest airplane experience?

2)                  Sully had been a pilot all his life, including a background with the Air Force Academy and the military.  What happens when the airlines hire pilots with lesser experience?

3)                  Should there be a mandatory retirement age for pilots?  At what age?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association