Sully: Eastwood about his New Heroic Biopic

Clint Eastwood’s new picture, Sully, which was released by Warner on September 9, is breaking box-office records.  For a good reason: It’s the right good film to watch at the right time for many Americans in this election year.

The previous feature of Eastwood, who is 86 and arguably the oldest studio director working today, was American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper in an Oscar-nominated performance, the most commercially successful of 2014–and of his entire career.


Focusing on the 2009 miracle landing of a U.S. Airways jetliner on the Hudson River in New York City after the plane ran into a flock of geese, the tale is more optimistic than anything Eastwood has directed.

The project got its start with the adaptation by Todd Komarnicki (“Perfect Stranger”) of Sullenberger’s memoir “Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters,” co-authored with Jeffrey Zaslow.

“In the political atmosphere we’re in, there are an awful lot of points being made–that you can’t count on people and institutions because they’re all broken — that none of them work,” said Tom Hanks, who portrays pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. “Well, that’s nonsense. They’re not all broken. And you can still have faith in them. And, in that regard, I think this movie makes a really strong case.”


Sullenberger is helping to promote the film, seven years after he was first thrust into the public eye, on January 15, 2009. Today, the 65-year-old aviator makes his living as a motivational speaker.  Six years removed from his last professional flight, he deems himself “thrilled” at the movie that Eastwood and Hanks have created.

“I wanted that sense of our common humanity to be a big, underlying current in the film, and it really is,” Sullenberger said. “This happened at a time, after the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, when it seemed like everything was going wrong. People were wondering if everything was about self-interest and greed. They were doubting human nature. Then all these people acted together, selflessly, to get something really important done. In a way, I think it gave everyone a chance to have hope, at a time when we all needed it.”

Months after Sullenberger brought the jetliner and its 155 passengers to a safe landing on the Hudson, he suffered from nightmares, insomnia, and post-traumatic stress symptoms. He says he found it comforting to receive the support of a nation–some 50,000 emails and letters.


He recalled that in one correspondence, a woman from Sacramento, Calif., talked about how she had lost her job and her house and suffered through the death of her father and a close friend. “Quite frankly, I lost my faith, and you, sir, gave it back,” the woman wrote.  Sullenberger said the note “meant more to me than anything.”

“Sully” relives the pilot’s split-second decisions after the Airbus A320’s engines flame out following a hit by a flock of Canadian geese. He flips to auxiliary power, aborts a return to LaGuardia International Airport, and works through possible landing spots with ground control.


But the film also describes other “ordinary” heroes, such as co-pilot Jeff Skiles (played by Aaron Eckhart), who plows down an emergency checklist. The three flight attendants who calm passengers and instruct the how to brace for impact.  The ferry boat captains chugging to the rescue without waiting for commands from above. And also the passengers, who remain calm as they wait to be bailed out from the nearly frozen river.

Those scenes from the day of the crisis are interwoven with glimpses of the youthful Sullenberger learning to fly a crop duster as a teenager in Texas, before graduating to the Air Force.

But, as his character notes in the film, it’s not his career in the air, but 208 seconds over New York that will make or break his reputation.

Eastwood initially was unsure about what he could bring to the project, until he read about the aftermath of the incident, and the second-guessing of Sullenberger’s actions.


The $60 million movie, produced by Eastwood, Frank Marshall, Allyn Stewart, and Tim Moore, with Kipp Nelson and Bruce Berman of Village Roadshow Pictures, was co-financed by Warner, Village Roadshow, and RatPac-Dune Entertainment, and shot over five weeks on location in New York, Atlanta, and the back lots at Warners and Universal.  The “Sully” crew floated a real Airbus jet on Falls Lake at Universal, backed later by green-screen images of the Hudson.

Eastwood included some of the real-life rescuers in the river scenes. “That was in the spirit of Sully saying, ‘Everyone did their job that day,’” said Hanks. “If you were there that day, you could come and be part of the shoot, and what was going to be a part of the popular record of what happened that day.”


At the center of the narrative are the National Transportation Safety Board’s hearings into the forced water landing. “Sully” takes creative license with the time frame — making it appear the sessions came immediately, when they were held more than a year after Flight 1549 went down.

“For me, the real conflict came after,” Eastwood said, “with the investigative board questioning his decisions, even though he’d saved so many lives.”

Eastwood’s upbeat view of the events on the Hudson creates a wave of good feeling, not just for Sully, but for his flight crew, scores of rescuers, the passengers who survived with hardly a scratch, and even the investigators who turned from potential villains into grudging admirers.

Eastwood concludes, “Hopefully this picture shows the good result that can come from a bad situation.  That when something’s going wrong, there are people out there like Capt. Sullenberger who will risk a lot—their time, their efforts, even their lives—on behalf of others.  The movie is called ‘Sully,’ but it’s really about the best in all of us.”