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Brace for impact 

'Sully' uncovers the human ingenuity behind the 'Miracle on the Hudson.'

click to enlarge 'SULLY': Tom Hanks (right) portrays the pilot who safely landed a passenger jet in the Hudson River; Aaron Eckhart portrays his co-pilot.
  • 'SULLY': Tom Hanks (right) portrays the pilot who safely landed a passenger jet in the Hudson River; Aaron Eckhart portrays his co-pilot.

The word "miracle" is a slander against the power of human intelligence, hard work and random chance. Just ask Dr. Ranjan Mustafi, one of the physicians in India who treated Monica Besra for a tubercular tumor only for her to turn around and attribute her cure to the ghost of an Albanian nun, which "miracle" the Vatican used to declare Mother Theresa a saint earlier this month. (Clearly, the patron saint of physicians had the day off when that decision was handed down.)

Although the movie "Sully" advertises itself with the word "miracle" — being "The Untold Story of the Miracle on the Hudson" — it is actually an unadulterated celebration of the human ingenuity that holds our world together. The movie opens not long after Capt. Chelsea "Sully" Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), successfully landed US Airways Flight 1549 in the middle of the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese that disabled both engines. The men try to accommodate themselves to this world of instant celebrity, of seeing their faces on every television and being hugged by strangers, while participating in the investigation of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB). Sully, in particular, finds himself wracked with doubt, playing the events of Jan. 15, 2009, over and over in his head and wondering, despite the fact that all 155 people onboard that plane lived, if he could have done anything differently. 

The actual water landing is presented piecemeal in flashback, revealing the true value of experience and training — and not just from the pilots. The air traffic controller works feverishly to find options for the plane and, when it dips below radar, to spread the word about its fate. The cabin crew works to disembark 150 panicked passengers onto the wings of the floating airplane. Ferry operators begin staging an unprecedented evacuation of the sinking plane, while the NYPD scrambles a helicopter with scuba divers to rescue passengers who ended up in the river.

Hanks has long been the go-to guy for everyman characters, and he does not disappoint here, playing a man with some 40 years of experience who is uncomfortable under the spotlight. Eckhart, as Hanks' co-pilot, is the younger, somewhat brasher man, but he does not overact this role; indeed, his portrayal of the moment when his Skiles finally receives some much-wanted praise from Sully is absolutely perfect but would be easy to overlook. Moreover, the screenplay avoids the standard "based on a true story" model by giving us the arguable climax, the water landing of the airplane, not near the end but interspersed throughout and presented such that the tension is present in each and every iteration. 

The one discordant note in the movie is the role of the NTSB, whose investigators are depicted cartoonishly as wanting to disprove the narrative offered them by Sully, their standard questions about his personal life or alcohol consumption rife with insinuation and their reconstructions of the event deliberately tilted toward suggesting that the captain had more alternatives than were immediately before him. Perhaps screenwriter Todd Komarnicki felt himself unable to write a story without a villain? Or, maybe he simply enjoys trading in the stereotypes of petty bureaucrats. Whatever the case, the people who study each crash intensively in order to make air travel safer are a part of this "miracle," too. As Sully notes in the hearing at the end of the movie, no one person ruled the day — "It was all of us."

The real-life Sully once told an interviewer, "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on Jan. 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal." This is the movie in a nutshell — a celebration of all the hard work that goes into making our world go around. No need have we to wait upon miracles. Our miracle workers are workers, and they stand right here before us.

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