WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — As far as everyday heroes go, commercial airline pilots might be among the most unsung.
It’s a truth that’s not lost on Tom Hanks, who plays Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” in Clint Eastwood’s latest, out Friday. His is a name no one would know had something not gone terribly wrong with U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which used the Hudson River as a landing strip after a flock of geese rendered the thrust on both engines ineffective.
“He takes responsibility for flying 150 people and if he does his job perfectly, nobody gives a (expletive),” Hanks said. “He could do his job flawlessly — perfect take off, easy landing, no turbulence — and the people are still going to hate the flight because the peanuts were stale and the airline lost their bags.”
The “Miracle on the Hudson” was one of those events that reminded the public just how skilled and quietly courageous those pilots are every time the wheels go up. The human lives aboard are what distinguishes him even from aviator characters Hanks has played, like Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell.
Once Hanks asked Sully why he didn’t just fly for, say, FedEx, toting cargo and not people. Sullenberger’s response? It’s a bad schedule. Cargo pilots fly at night.
What many don’t know, however, is that the story didn’t end for Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles once all 155 on board were safe on dry land. They were, 18 months later, subjected to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Eastwood’s film dramatizes this inquiry and all the doubt that was placed on Sully’s snap judgment to land in the Hudson, as opposed to trying to make it back to one of the surrounding airports. The film sets the investigation in the immediate aftermath of the emergency landing.
“I’m very glad that this more complete version of the story is being told because this absolutely is one that nobody knows,” said Sullenberger, who is now an aviation safety consultant.
Aaron Eckhart, who plays co-pilot Jeff Skiles, said that of all that was at stake — their jobs and their professional and commercial licenses — they were most concerned about losing their reputations as pilots. Depending on the findings of the NTSB, that 208 seconds on Flight 1549 could eradicate the meaning of their 20,000 hours in the air and all of the lives they’d delivered safely over the years.
It’s something Eckhart and Hanks think of often as people in the public eye.
“You’re only one anecdote away from being the guy who said that dumb thing,” Hanks said.
Eckhart laughed: “You’re on a tightrope, baby!”
“This is why neither of us drink!” Hanks added.
They exercised equal care in doing justice to the real lives they were representing.
“It’s not our job to screw up the lives of these guys,” Hanks said, no stranger to playing real people in films. For him, the big sins are voluntarily altering events to ratchet up tension and assigning an editorial position on their motivations.
“You’re searching for a kind of almost journalistic authenticity that really movies are the antitheses of. It’s so easy to lie in movies,” Hanks said. “Whenever I see in a movie ‘based on a true story,’ I go ‘ohhh that’s dangerous.’ Based on a true story? There’re a lot of things you can ‘base’ on a true story. Tarzan the ape man can be based on a true story.”
Not everyone agrees “Sully” is a completely accurate portrayal of the accident investigation. A big part of the dramatic tension in the latter half of the movie is the prosecutorial tone of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation. That was a surprise to the real-life investigators, who say that’s just not how they conduct themselves.
Hanks said Sully requested that the actual names of the investigators be changed, knowing that the film would editorialize the drama in these scenes.
Also, he added: “They are not trying to convict either Sully or Skiles of doing something wrong, but they are trying to figure out exactly what went wrong.”
But things seemed to have turned out OK with the crew’s depiction.
“I just saw Sully in the hallway and he didn’t punch me in the stomach or anything so that’s a good sign,” said Eckhart with a chuckle.
And as Hanks puts it: “He could be water skiing while we’re here. But he wants people to know about the massive team that made this happen.”
The real wild card was Eastwood — famous and feared for his hyper efficient shoots. Hanks won’t name names, but did go on a little fact finding mission among his industry peers to find out whether the stories were true.
One told him simply that “there’s just no question that when he comes on set, he is the man.” He was also told another story about a fellow actor who wanted to tweak a bit of dialogue.
“Clint looked at them and said ‘Do you want to get into this now?'” Hanks said in his best Dirty Harry growl.
It’s the kind of story that can stop even pros like Eckhart and Hanks in their tracks.
Eckhart’s reticent to tell any stories about “the boss,” but he got his own dose of Eastwood his first day on set.
“I turn around, Clint is there and I open my mouth to ask a question. He looked at me, turned around and walked the other way,” Eckhart said laughing. “I was like ‘got it. I got it.'”
Both agreed simply to get to set early and just be prepared.
Hanks eventually got used to the silent finger twirl that meant that cameras are rolling and now everyone is waiting on him. He even found it liberating.
“Genuine behavior can be screwed up by overthought,” Hanks said. “Clint has seen every way that time can be wasted and he does not want to do that.”
AP writers Nicole Evatt in West Hollywood and Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this story.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr