Review “Sully” Movie

by Richard de Crespigny


  • “Sully” is a story of personal and team resilience.
  • Sully made a difference for his passengers, crew, company and their friends.
  • The real Sully Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles are larger in life than their characters in the movie.  Their values, words and actions provide life lessons for us all.


To understand Sully the man, we must first appreciate the difference between good, great and exceptional leaders:

  • Good leaders have the following attributes: clear values, acceptance of responsibility, courage, smart risk taking and initiative.
  • Great leaders also have personal humility and an intense personal will.
  • Exceptional leaders have a courageous spine with the ability to communicate to our emotional cores.  They craft passionate messages mixed with empathy and care that resonate in us.  They don’t tell us what or how to do things, they tell us why.   Exceptional leaders like Elon Musk have the ability call us to action, not to maintain or transform the status quo but to disrupt it.

JFK, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Dr Martin Luther King were all exceptional leaders. People would give their life for these leaders. Sully is an exceptional leader.

John Howard, Australia’s former Prime Minister said, “The most important attributes in leaders are their values”. Simon Sinek continues this discussion with the WHY, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. What you do is just proof of what you believe. So when you tell people what you believe and you’ll attract those who believe what you believe”.

Sully’s WHY was simple and clear – to ensure the surviving passenger count equalled 155 – everyone onboard. Life was more important than everything else. When Sully identified his WHYs the HOWs became obvious. When you know how to think, act and communicate, the WHATs flow naturally.

It’s easy to be critical of movies today. Script writers and directors add fear, doubt and uncertainty to entertain the viewers with an emotional roller coaster ride. Actors said and did things in “Apollo 13” and “Sully” that did not happen. Substance lies beyond the criticism, so you need to be tolerant of the Hollywood factor and enjoy the bigger picture.

The scenes where Sully imagined his plane crashing into the buildings were not illusionary fantasies. I wrote in my book how I also became self-doubting after QF32, consumed by thoughts and dreams of “what-ifs” that ended in disaster.

The perspectives of Sully and his First Officer, Jeff Skiles, being on trial for everything they had accomplished in their careers and did on Flight 1549 were accurate. However, the reality in the cockpit was far more dramatic than the movie.

Although the actions of the crew were channelled and controlled, they were surrounded by a sea of chaos. Their peaceful cockpit erupted with piercing sounds of warnings, bells, and alerts. Calm was replaced with Gatling gun fire of commands, decisions, announcements and procedures. This was Sully’s and Jeff’s reality, however it was too complex to fully capture on the screen. Be under no illusion of the risks that faced Flight 1549. They were outside the protections of certification that define aircraft safety – no pilots are trained for these events.

Sully said “I had to synthesise in seconds my lifetime of knowledge and experience to solve problems that I’d never seen before. And I never knew upon which 208 seconds of flight my entire career might be judged”. One of the investigators observed, “That guy has been training for this his entire life”.

Tom Hanks did not capture the depth of Sully’s bravery, leadership and resilience. Many, if not most, pilots would have felt they were done with their responsibilities the moment the passengers were rescued. But Sully never relinquished command of USAirways 1549, not at the ferry terminal, not in the subsequent days of media frenzy, nor throughout the lengthy investigation. Sully is still the Captain of Flight 1549 even today.

“Sully” shows us a better way to investigate safety.    Safety officials generally only research events where things go wrong. The answers uncover ignorance, inadequate training or lack of experience. Rarely do the positive influences emerge.

“Sully” captured the successes of Flight 1549.  When we look into Sully’s career, we discover the ingredients for personal resilience and success. These skills did not just protect the passengers of Flight 1549; they saved the lives of every passenger who flew with Sully over his 42-year career.  We should bottle the essence of Sully’s values and behaviours, and use it as an elixir for resilience and success.

It takes skill to keep calm when others are panicking. It’s a skill to make split-second decisions to protect hundreds of lives and equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars. When disaster strikes you must maintain your free mental space, and keep a clear mental mode and situational awareness so that you make the correct decisions to survive.

The passengers on board US Airways Flight 1549 were most likely startled. They probably remember their breath shortening, heart and breathing rate increasing, muscles tensing, becoming deaf as their senses narrowed. At the peak of their stress their options might have narrowed to flee, fight or freeze. Only those who have experienced this emotional state fully appreciate the skills of the resilient who stay calm and act decisively to protect us.

Lorrie Sullenberger and the passengers were short changed. Nothing can prepare your family for the avalanche of media that invade your property and blind you with their flashes when social media and the networks television crews strike. Coral and I could not return home until the media dispersed four days after QF32. Nothing will prepare you for your need to find information and privacy. Nothing can prepare a spouse to welcome home a loved one shut down by PTS. The emotional trauma Sully felt also extended to his crew, passengers and their families. It’s a pity those stories were not told.

Sully would probably agree with me that there are no such things as heroes, only heroic (team) actions. Any one of us could be put into a situation where our actions might save hundreds of lives. Great things happen when preparation meets opportunity.

Coral and I sat silent and exhausted after watching “Sully”. We were in the first row of the cinema, the screen filled our view. I was in Sully’s cockpit. Coral was with Lorrie at home. Every thought, word and action had resonated in us loud and clear. We were proud of the air traffic controllers, passengers, rescuers and people of New York. We stayed to watch the credits at the end. This was a gem as we experienced the side of leadership that is seldom discussed; full disclosure, empathy and care.

Sully and Lorrie Sullenberger met the passengers US Airways Flight 1549 many times after the flight. The pair answered their questions, allayed fears and helped people recover from PTSD. I could see in the eyes of the passengers and crew that these were cathartic events and everyone appreciated the full disclosure.

Personally, the “Sully” movie reinforces the values of exceptional leaders. Sully has a passion for aviation, safety and leadership. He espouses a lifetime of continuous learning and was driven by core values to put others’ safety before his own. These are the first ingredients for success.

Technically, the “Sully” movie reminds us that well trained and experienced flight crews are your best defence during black swan aircraft events.

High technology and security is an oxymoron. Technology and security are enemies of each other. Whilst technology is the enabler, security is the technology brake that is always trying to stop things from happening. That’s why technology can’t synergise with security the way it does in other spheres. That’s why over-reliance on technology often leads to bad security and increased risks.

Islands of human resilience like the crews of Flight 1549 remain our only refuge in every industry that is inexorably forced forward to surf the edge of chaos in seas of complexities and failures.

The “Miracle on the Hudson” was a team success. Though Sully Sullenberger was the pilot in command, he was fortunate to be supported by co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles, himself a captain on a previous type. Jeff is one of the most respectable persons I have ever met. Jeff is genuinely modest of his skills, which is why Sully acknowledges him at every opportunity. Sully and Jeff were supported by flight attendants Donna Dent, Doreen Welsh, and Sheila Dail. Together they were exemplars for aviation safety.

Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks did a great job in “Sully”, a human testament to leadership, teamwork and resilience. However, the real Sully Sullenberger and Jeff Skiles are larger in life than their characters in the movie.

The world needs heroes now, more than ever before. Heroes show there can be growth from adversity and we should always strive and be prepared to take risks to become better than we are. Heroes don’t just do great things, they do them altruistically, empathetically and instinctively. Men like Sully and Jeff wear their hero titles honourably and justly. Our faith in their values should never be diminished.

Sully and Jeff are lifetime members of the world’s resilience club. We are fortunate to have them show us how to prepare for the unexpected, deliver our highest duty, and make a difference.