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Reel Life VS. Real Life: Sully

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Clint Eastwood’s cinematic recounting of the ‘miracle on the Hudson’ charts a mostly factual course...

The decision to beef up the story was no doubt due to necessity — after all, the actual flight lasted just 208 seconds.

A “miracle on the Hudson” is what the governor of New York called the extraordinary story of US Airways Flight 1549 shortly after it happened on the morning of Jan. 15, 2009. That phrase became synonymous with the emergency landing in the river off midtown Manhattan and the now-famous pilot — Captain Chesley Sullenberger, or Sully for short — who saved all 155 souls on board thanks to his courage and quick thinking.

Of course, there was more to the miracle than what initially appeared in all the gushing media coverage. With Sully, director Clint Eastwood weighs in with a more complex portrait of an American hero. The decision to beef up the story was no doubt due to necessity — after all, the actual flight lasted just 208 seconds. Eastwood’s team needed more material to fill a 96-minute running time, so the Hollywood version inevitably diverged from the real-life flight plan.

On Jan. 15, 2009, three minutes after leaving LaGuardia airport for its scheduled morning flight to Charlotte, North Carolina, an Airbus A320 passenger jet experienced a catastrophic failure in both engines.

TRUE: As the movie portrays, the accident occurred only minutes after takeoff. However, Eastwood delays his extensive re-creation to the middle of the film, beginning instead with a dream sequence that reveals another of the director’s goals: demonstrating how Sully’s inspirational story helped New Yorkers emerge from their fog of grief after 9/11. It’s no accident that the film was released a few days before the 15th anniversary of the attacks.

The engines failed after the plane struck a flock of Canada geese.

TRUE: Large birds were indeed the culprit. But Eastwood’s movie doesn’t tell you the accident’s impact on the area’s bird population — nearly 70,000 have been killed as part of the airport’s efforts to make the skies safer, though bird advocates believe that improving radar systems is a more humane fix.

Sullenberger was a former U.S. Air Force fighter pilot with more than 40 years of flying experience, and an expert with his own air-safety consultancy business.

ALSO TRUE: If anyone was going to pull off this kind of miracle, Sullenberger fit the bill. But the movie also finds humour in the modest scale of his business. Sully’s company, Safety Reliability Methods, was little more than a number on a business card, one that forwarded callers to the pilot’s soon-to-be-very-full voicemail box.

Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles kept their heads as they “ditched” the Airbus, with Sullenberger calmly informing passengers to “brace for impact” and telling air-traffic controllers “we’re going to be in the Hudson” before successfully putting the plane in the drink. The pilot was also the last to leave the plane.

AMAZING, BUT TRUE: The script in the sequence largely sticks with actual cockpit dialogue. If anything, Sully handled the stress even better than the film suggests, walking the aisle twice to make sure there was no one left before getting out.

After the crash, Sullenberger was treated harshly by U.S. National Transportation Safety Board investigators who believed his decision was wrong and the plane could have returned to LaGuardia.

FALSE: Here’s where Sully becomes more problematic, especially for the officials who were truly very appreciative of the pilot’s actions (even Sullenberger says so). The film strongly suggests that he was persecuted by hostile NTSB investigators and board members, none of whom actually exist. The investigation’s timeline was shortened from a few months to a few days. Upon Sully’s release last fall, NTSB officials complained they’d been sold down the river to provide a villain for the Hollywood version. In response, one of the film’s producers said: “It’s not a documentary.”

Sullenberger suffered PTSD in the wake of his emergency landing his marriage was also badly affected.

PRETTY MUCH TRUE: As Sullenberger himself recounted in his memoir, Highest Duty, his PTSD symptoms included flashbacks, insomnia, and high blood pressure. His wife said the media attention created tension in their marriage, though it’s safe to assume the spouses’ hackneyed conversations — with Laura Linney stuck in the thankless role of Sully’s better half — are not as accurate as the cockpit chatter.

Throughout their whole ordeal, Sullenberger and Skiles rocked some seriously awesome moustaches.

MOVIE DOESN’T DO THEM JUSTICE:  Even Tom Hanks had ‘stache envy, saying he thought Sully “had a better moustache than I did.” Aaron Eckhart was more successful replicating the bushy splendour of Skiles’ upper lip, and later admitted having mixed feelings over shaving off the beast. “It was keeping me warm — it was like a little blanky. But sometimes you have to get rid of the blanky.”

Jason Anderson writes about movies for Cinema Scope, FFWD, and the Toronto Star.