Fight or Flight
Clint Eastwood’s Sully is a no frills, matter-of-fact retelling of 2009’s so-called “Miracle on the Hudson”; a feat of unprecedented piloting skill (or luck) that saw US Airways Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger safely land his Airbus A320 on the river when a flock of geese struck and killed both the plane’s engines.
All 155 passengers and crew survived but aviation authorities, being the suspicious technocrats they are, were less quick than the media to label the Captain’s split decision – land on the water rather than risk not making the two available airports and capping the 9/11 decade with the crash of another commercial airliner into New York’s skyline – an act of heroism. They interrogated the in-flight data, ran simulations, and for a time looked to be taxiing for a grab on Sullenberger’s career and pension. It’s this inquiry, peppered with watershed flashbacks for the lifelong pilot and a thorough nigh-on real time retelling of the accident and rescue, that bulks out Eastwood’s movie.
So what separates Sully from the drama inserts you find in TV disaster documentaries? Very little. Out of respect for Sullenberger and with reverence to his quick thinking and calm under pressure, Eastwood’s movie is careful in its pacing, solemnly performed and drama free. That lack of style is an affectation of course, just as Paul Greengrass’s decision to shoot United 93 vérité was a tonal choice and piece of virtue signaling, but Greengrass was rather better at generating tension and a sense of real time panic in editing. Bar a zoom in on Tom Hanks’ face at the moment of decision, during the cockpit only version of events, Eastwood allows events to unfold without fanfare or urgency. The unintended consequence is to underscore the movie’s interest in the technicalities of the crash – who did what and when – rather than showing torrents of sweat pour down Hanks’s face. That’s ironic as Sully’s exoneration hinges on the human factor; the decisions that people make that belie the certainty of hard data.
Tom Hanks, a Star Trek fan, may appreciate the irony that his movie resembles a remake of the 1989 Next Generation episode, “Booby Trap” (coincidentally Mike Okuda, Sully’s on screen graphics creator, did the same job on the Trek series). Here, the Enterprise was powerless, having fallen victim to a propulsion sapping snare with the ability to kill all those on board. Salvation lay in one of two scenarios – turning the ship over to computers to navigate to safety, using the little power that remained, hoping it would be enough – or putting trust in human intuition and the will to survive; a process that would mean coasting out of danger without artificial thrust. Perhaps Sully was a fan of this episode and remembered it 20 years later when faced with either trusting the men and their machines on the ground or, as he did, “eyeballing it”. As in the Trek episode, computer simulations would say the mechanical version was possible, but it’s the human factor in both stories that ultimately wins out – experience, judgement, fight or flight.
Eastwood may lament that Trek told the story better, with greater drama and in half the time, but it’s nevertheless a dilemma with a fascinating philosophical bent. Those interested in the onboard technicalities of flying and a study in high stakes professionalism under pressure, will find Sully quietly captivating without being thrilling, solid without being emotional. In fact, a movie that very much resembles the titular pilot. How’s that for art faithfully imitating life?