Eastwood Gets Aviation Right in Sully

8:35 PM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

I have just returned from seeing Director Clint Eastwood's "Sully" depicting the harrowing 208-second flight of Cactus...aka U.S. Airways...Flight 1549 from KLGA to Charlotte, NC. We all know how the flight ends, with Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles making a very successful water landing in New York's Hudson River.
The fact that we know how this movie ends (or begins?) presented a gigantic challenge to Eastwood...who is a helicopter pilot...is how do you stretch a 208-second flight into a 1 hour, 36-minute feature film? How much fluff would need to be manufactured to make the continuity of the film work? This was on my mind, but from the chatter I've been reading on Twitter, everyone I know in the #avgeek family wanted to know one thing:
Was "Sully" going to be the usual Hollywood hatchet job when it comes to aviation authenticity, making a mockery of this thing called flying we all know so well?
I am happy to report that "Sully" is indeed a movie any #avgeek will be thrilled with. It is very accurate, a fact confirmed before I even entered the cineplex by professional pilots like Eric Auxier - @CapnAux on Twitter - who just happens to fly A320s just like the ship used on flight 1549. It appears Eastwood and his team of producers worked very hard to research ATC and NTSB transcripts, cockpit voice recordings, and even consulted Sully himself on the set. There was nothing obvious to this private pilot that came off as shabby Hollywood sensationalism, everything from the dialogue used on the radio to the actual flying of the airplane seemed right.
I am not going to give away spoilers here, because if you love airplanes and this story, you have to see this movie. One criticism I heard before seeing it was that the scenes showing the way the NTSB investigated the "crash" was too harsh towards the pilots, like they were considering Sully and Skiles guilty before being proven innocent. I did not see that, in fact it looked like the investigators were asking the tough questions they have to ask after any major aviation incident. Asking when was the last time Sully took a drink does not imply he was drunk, it is just a question NTSB asks.
The issue of whether Sully made a mistake by not trying to fly an Airbus glider with two flamed out and destroyed engines back to La Guardia is gone over in minute detail in the NTSB scenes. What I was not expecting though were the many different simulations that were done to try to confirm NTSB's multiple computer simulations showing Sully could have made it back to the airport. I will not give away more of the story line here, but the detail in which this issue was discussed was refreshing, and as an aviator, it looks completely believable and realistic to me. One high point of the movie for me was when someone from the NTSB panel calls this a "crash" and Sully sternly - but in his usual calm but determined voice - reminds them it was not a crash, but a "water landing."
And on the subject of realism, the "water landing" scenes were very well done. Of course, it had to be all CGI as I doubt Eastwood commissioned a real A320 to crash into the Hudson again and film the event from a million camera angles. I know going in this actual event would have to be computer-generated, but on the IMAX screen, it looks about as good as I can imagine. With superb editing building the drama, you are riding jump seat with Sully and Skiles as the water inches closer. And when it finally hits, the producers did not go into the typical Hollywood bag of effects tricks. The amount of water hitting the windscreen is believable, and even the actual attitude of the airplane just before impact is very real.
Let's talk about that attitude, shall we? In a mostly empty theatre, I doubt there were very many other licensed pilots but myself. So probably nobody else noticed one thing throughout those 208 seconds...that Sully and Skiles never stopped flying the airplane. Never. Right up to the very end - shown with minute detail by a CU of Sully's left hand pulling back slightly on the Airbus' control stick - he keeps it above stall speed and flying. Even when approaching the George Washington Bridge with "Bitchin' Betty" screaming "TERRAIN! TERRAIN! PULL UP!" it is refreshing to see that Sully - the pilot flying at that point - resisted the urge to pull up into a stall. That would have had a far different end result than the real one, in which every one of the 155 passengers and crew survived with very few serious injuries. This is one of those details Eastwood could have gotten wrong, but when you see the precise attitude of the A320 just as it is about to hit the water, you can tell much effort went into getting the flying parts of this movie exactly right.
If there is a criticism I can give this wonderfully-crafted film, it is the ending. To say how it ends would require a spoiler alert, so let me just use the word "abrupt" to describe the conclusion. I would have liked to see a few scenes showing Skiles working with kids as Co-Chairman for EAA's Young Eagles program, or Sully working in his current role as an international speaker as he helps to develop new protocols for airline safety. It. Just. Ended.
On the five-star movie review system, I give "Sully" five of them, all gold. No rotten tomatoes at all. Extremely good cinematography, exceptional editing and a script that while bouncing a bit around the timeline, keeps the story right on track. Add to this the effort made to make this as authentic to real-world aviation as possible, and becomes a movie every pilot will enjoy.
A tip: Stay for the credits, as there are some great tidbits of video shot with the real Sully and Skiles...and the survivors...all worth watching while a hundred million crew names slide up the screen.
Kudos to Village Roadshow Pictures for getting this movie right. Because we #avgeeks would have found every tiny missed detail or overblown dramatic moment. I found none. And it goes without saying that I have more respect for Sully and Skiles than I had yesterday. Sully likes to downplay the "hero" designation, saying any airline pilot would have done the same thing. But it wasn't anyone else, it was his hand on that side-stick, so Sully...if you read this, I won't pile on with the "hero" stuff. But I will say you are one helluva good aviator. When both engines are full of bird guts, with 150 souls aboard and the icy Hudson coming up fast out front, you stayed seat of the pants, drawing on your 40+ years of flying to do what all aviators should do...tap into your natural flying instincts and FLY THE AIRPLANE.
I will fly with this Captain any time.

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