WEST HOLLYWOOD — It would be wise to avoid referring to the "Miracle on the Hudson" flight as a crash.
“Landing,” Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger gently corrects a reporter, as he sits sandwiched between Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood. Thanks to this trio, Sully hits theaters Friday, a dramatic retelling of the stunning landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009, saving all 155 lives aboard.
Even Sullenberger's wife, Lorrie (played by Laura Linney), "still says crash,” he says, shaking his head with a chuckle. “Water landing, come on. Work with me on this.”
Hanks deadpans: “Can we call it, like, a lost luggage experience?”
Eastwood, who directs, cast Hanks as the pilot of the flight that took off from LaGuardia, suffered both engines disabled by a flock of birds and made a successful emergency landing 208 seconds later in the freezing water. Images of the floating plane, passengers on its wings, inspired a nation to drop its collective jaw.
The script, based on Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty, goes behind the scenes of that day and its aftermath, detailing the nightmare the pilot endured when an investigation called his judgment into question. (Analysis initially deduced he could have made it back to the airport.)
“We were waiting for the other shoe to drop,” says Sullenberger of he and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). It was months "before they recovered the left engine, before they analyzed the recorders, before they really determined that given reaction time, we could not have made it to a runway.”
Hanks, no stranger to playing real men, from astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 to the hijacked merchant mariner in Captain Phillips, says when he met Sullenberger to discuss the role, “I said, 'Look, I’m going to say things you never said and I’m going to do things you never did and I’ll be places you never were. Now, taking that into account –' "
Eastwood laughs broadly. “Other than that, it’s a great film.”
Other than that, "can we make this as authentic as possible?” Hanks says.
The two-time Oscar winner sat in the pilot's living room going over the script line by line, which Sullenberger had “dog-eared, notated, highlighted,” Hanks says.
To recreate the landing sequence, the actors — and the pilot — climbed into a flight simulator. “Sully flew it first, from hitting the geese and the whole bit. Then I tried it and Aaron (Eckhart) tried it," Hanks says. "Then we tried to fly the simulator back to LaGuardia and saw what happened there. And outside of getting wet, it’s stunning how the sensation feels real.”
Did Sullenberger, who retired in 2010 after 30 years of flying for the airline and now consults on aviation safety, have apprehension about getting the Hollywood treatment?
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. “I mean, this is my life. ... It’s a leap of faith, but I think my faith was rewarded.”
Today, the pilot says he's made peace with the word “hero,” though he has long disputed he carried that day alone.
"A hero is somebody who does something extraordinary and possibly endangers himself or sacrifices himself for other people," Eastwood says. "And that’s exactly what (Sullenberger) did. … He was a hero in a matter of very few seconds.”