Warning: This movie review contains spoilers.
Hollywood has a bit of a fascination with modern biographical dramas. We can’t really blame them, either. Moviegoers are flocking to films like Lone Survivor and Eddie the Eagle for a good reason. Real, tangible human drama and human tragedy are far easier to relate to than even the best pieces of fiction. When we recognize that the intensity of a film is based on real events (some of which we have may have lived through or experienced) we are drawn to it. It’s why 24-hour news networks keep growing, and why most of the coverage seems to focus on human tragedy of all kinds. Sex sells. Pain, anguish, and conflict all sell. Most of us have been conditioned to believe that for a film to even be passably entertaining, it has to have at least some combination of those things.
Oddly enough, Sully doesn’t authentically deliver on any those. The “Miracle on the Hudson” was only a miracle because the crisis was wholly averted. The primary conflict was an internal one. And the closest we get to physical intimacy is when a hotel manager gives Captain Sully an awkward, adoring hug. By all normal measures of what modern moviegoers seem to find popular these days, Sully should be hobbling out of the gate. The movie at times feels like a handicapped Titanic, sans tragedy. But it’s not. The reason so many viewers may seem to find the film so surprisingly entertaining has to do with our emotions related to manned flight itself.
In 2013, ABC News published an article by a travel site CEO titled “Fear of Flying? Some Good Things to Know”. Using the ever-common practice of starting with a contextually relevant example, author Rick Seaney writes, “Nobody zeroes in on the angst of modern day America better than comedian Louis CK. One of his best bits: Slamming cranky passengers for failing to recognize the miracle of flying.” Indeed, many of us still seem to perceive flight as a rather miraculous thing. But, to use a rather loaded term, flight is a "settled science". We've mastered the skies. We've even been to the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Pluto and even the very edge of our own solar system. We have nothing left to learn about terrestrial flight, right? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
Sully presents an interesting dichotomy that’s easily ignored by the unobservant viewer, but that frames the entire film from start to finish. It’s easiest understood as a rather simple question: When it comes to flight, can we trust machine intelligence more than human experience? The filmmakers, and supposedly Captain Sully himself, all seem to think so. Once you recognize that this is indeed an integral and overarching theme in the movie, you’ll have a bit of a hard time seeing it in any other light.
I’ll Keep My Two Feet on the Ground
The film addresses several issues with that theme. Most importantly, it brings light to the fact that many of us are still horrendously afraid of flying. Full disclosure: I am one of those people. At 32, I’ve spent fewer than 4 hours in the air. Personally, that was 4 hours too many for me. I’d much rather be among the 18% of Americans who proudly (or shamefully) proclaim that they’ve never flown. I have no love of flying for the simple fact that I have significant trust issues when it comes to that particular form of transportation. I trust trains because they’re relegated to the safety of tracks. I trust roads because they have a somewhat organized structure and, for the most part, I do all of the driving myself. But planes? My irrationality makes it hard for me to put my trust in even the most experienced pilot. I know people that have walked away from car crashes and lived to tell about it. I don’t know anyone that’s recounted that time their plane fell from the sky. Then again, I don’t know any of those who landed on the Hudson.
The false idea that few people walk away from airplane crashes is addressed twice in film. Once, when Sully is getting questioned by the National Transportation Safety Board investigators in a closed-door session, and again when the most antagonistic investigator of the group admits that he's never had the opportunity to conduct an investigation of an airline crash while the captain was actually still alive. This is actually not quite as true as the film would have us believe. ABC News quoted one M.I.T. researcher whose research determined that over 95% of those involved in plane crashes walk away from them. To put it in another perspective, the researcher, Arnold Bennett, further explained, "If you take one flight a day, you would on average need to fly every day for 55,000 years before being involved in a fatal crash.”
Yes, fear of flying is completely irrational. The Sully movie wants us to understand that, grasp it, embrace it. This is clearly evident when you consider the statistics as well. Data and graphs from the Aviation Safety Network point to the fact that, as a percent of the number of people flying, airlines are far safer than automobiles by a wide margin. While your one-year odds of dying due to air travel are 1 in 752,688, for an automobile, that number is 1 in 8,938. If I was a betting man, I know which one I’d bet on.
Pilot Error is Human Error
Also, key to the film's man versus machine theme is the NTSB investigators’ heavy reliance on computer models. Models that showed that the venerated Captain Sully, a man who spent 42 years as a pilot and flew over 1 million passengers without incident, was at fault. That a crash in the Hudson River was no miracle, but a case of “human error”. Every film needs a villain. In this case, the film’s director Clint Eastwood uses the main theme to create villains out of overly-sinister NTSB investigators. “Captain Sully is a hero”, the film tells us. “You can’t question that.” Well, you can if you place your full belief in computer models, like the willfully misguided men and women at the NTSB. This characterization is perhaps the film’s biggest fault. And the real investigators were, unsurprisingly, none too happy with being made out to be bad guys against Sully’s narrative, one that they fully believed and fully supported.
The film takes extreme liberties with the truth in order to create the primary conflict. This is fairly common with a piece of historical drama where the main actors are either no longer alive or don’t have reputations to maintain. But the Miracle on the Hudson was less than a decade ago. By fudging the facts to dramatize a situation that wasn’t there, Eastwood plays fast and loose with the livelihoods of a select group of bureaucrats already predisposed to receiving animosity by simply being bureaucrats. Likewise, it was a direction that was ultimately not needed. The film could have stood on the merits of Captain Sully’s internal conflict over the situation alone. Instead, Eastwood makes evil out of good men and women who must watch as their reputations are tarnished through a film dramatization that they can neither profit from not change.
Truth in the Numbers
53%. That’s the number of plane crashes that occur as a result of pilot error. It’s not an insignificant number, and it does mean something. The Sully movie is clear in emphasizing the idea that Sully’s decision was better than any computer model. And when the real NTSB ran their computer simulations, their models only showed a successful return to the runway 8 out of 15 times. That’s that exact same number (53%) of crashes of that are attributed to pilot error. And really, that’s the point.
The Sully movie excels because it plays, not on our fear of flight, but on our confusing relationship with human experience. It’s not really technology that we fear. It’s those behind it that we doubt. We’re not so much afraid of dying in a car crash because the car will fail us. We’re more afraid of the other drivers. This, too, applies to the Sully movie. But the film also draws the opposite conclusion. Human experience is not inconsequential. It’s meaningful. And when it comes down to a probability that’s equivalent to a coin flip, many of us feel much more comfortable relying on experience.
Film Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.