On January 15, 2009, commercial airline pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson River when the plane struck a flock of geese shortly after takeoff, causing both engines to fail. It took the combined efforts of Sully’s crew and over 1,000 first responders in New York City and New Jersey to ensure the safety of all 155 passengers. But director Clint Eastwood’s big screen adaptation of the famous incident opens with an alternate version of the crash – one that ends in a fiery (and eerily familiar) explosion into the side of a New York City skyscraper. Why risk the fury of moviegoers with such distressing 9/11 imagery? Because it shows how differently it could have ended without Sully’s heroic act, and in doing so, gets the audience firmly behind its subject from the start.
The film begins several weeks after the so-called Miracle on the Hudson, with Sully (Tom Hanks) and his crew, including First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), making the talk show rounds to discuss their experience. Unbeknownst to the general public, there was an investigation taking place behind closed doors with the National Transportation Safety Board in order to determine whether Sully’s “forced water landing” (he refuses to use the word “crash”) was justified or reckless. So when a computer simulation of the accident reveals new data that suggests the airplane could have made it back to LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport without injury to any of the passengers, it casts a shadow of self-doubt on the experienced pilot, who’s already under an immense amount of pressure between the ongoing investigation, the numerous media commitments and financial problems at home, not to mention the PTSD caused by the incident itself.