BySam Cooper, writer at
Spastic writer and a lover of all things with the word "espresso" in the title.
Sam Cooper

It's not uncommon to witness a miracle in the movie theater. With the invasion of comic book movies, the constant dribble of inspirational films, and overwrought dramas, miracles are handed out in cinemas like candy on Halloween. It's a sweet kind of thrill, but too much will make you sick. Miracles lose their flavor when we expect them. So why is it that Clint Eastwood's most recent release, Sully, captures the miracle of the 2009 plane crash on the Hudson River without a single toothache?

Setting The Stage

There are three extraordinary reasons why Sully works so well. All of them are rooted in the science behind insurance, planes, and the mind. However, the setup of the film is just as important. The "Miracle on the Hudson" happened on January 15, 2009 when US Airways Flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia and struck a flock of migrating geese. With both engines down, Captain Chesley Sullenberger ditched the plane in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers survived. It was, in the most basic sense of the word, a miracle — surviving a water landing is rare in plane crashes. Sully doesn't discount the miracle or milk it for all it's worth. Thanks to the elements of science woven through the film, it shows the event exactly how it was.

1. The National Transportation Safety Board Is On Your Side

After a plane crash, the last thing you want to focus on is insurance, but that is precisely how Sully opens. Both Sullenberger and his copilot are grilled by the airline's insurance company and the National Transportation Safety Board. This isn't so much an element of science as it is an element of the political and economic tides surrounding public transportation.

By staining the screen with the unpleasant interactions of NTSB officers, Sully pulls away from the actual plane crash far enough to make the scenario believable. In addition to nailing the realism, the spotlight on the aftermath adds a solid layer of intrigue to the film. Without the insurance fights, the investigations and the hurried assumptions, Sully wouldn't be the same balanced film.

2. Calculations And Guesses

Along with the NTSB comes the investigations into the physics of the crash. From the beginning of the movie, the data from the plane shows that there might have been a chance the left engine still had thrust. Instead of ditching the plane and endangering 155 lives, Captain Sullenberger could have flown it back to an airport. Simulations from Airbus are run throughout the film. They dig into a more frustrating aspect of the scenario. Nobody can argue with a hero, but who can argue with the math? Sully never shies away from exploring the tensions between human nature and unshakable facts, giving even more weight to the miracle of the crash.

3. Sleepless Nights

Nobody expects to think about insurance after a plane crash. Nobody expects to think about math. What do people think about? The crash itself.

News image of the crash in 2009.
News image of the crash in 2009.

Thanks to Tom Hanks's excellent portrayal of Captain Sullenberger, the film paints a dark, heavy streak of emotion onto the aftermath of the event. Sullenberger suffers from visions of crashing planes. He zones out. He spends his nights wide awake, terrified of falling asleep and finding himself in the cockpit again. While Sully never goes into the explicit details of his mental health, having the effects displayed on screen is enough to fit the last puzzle piece of the scenario.

Fly On

Insurance, safety investigations, flight simulations, and PTSD — Sully has all of it. The film is about a miracle, but it travels a bumpy path through the less-than-pretty details of the event. But it's only the bumps — the sciences saturating each frame — that makes it so good. After all, when the world puts something unbelievable on the table, it's best to take it with a healthy dose of reality.

Watch the trailer for Sully below:

What was the last Tom Hanks role that thoroughly impressed you?

Sources: The Conversation, The University of North Dakota, IMDB.


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