[ Postscript at the start: Oh dear, I wrote this review months ago and forgot to post it! Sully is still on at a couple of theatres so I guess this is just one of my ‘hurry up because it’s finishing soon’ posts]
How striking that two of the major news stories of the twenty-first century in a visual sense should occur in New York: that footage of the plane flying into the second Twin Tower and the eventual collapse of the towers, and the landing of US Airways Flight 1549 onto the Hudson River on the cold morning of Jan. 15, 2009 after striking a flock of geese. The movie ‘Sully’ tells the story of Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger whose skills saved the 155 passengers and crew on board, and the review that took place after the incident. In this telling, within days of his heroic action his reputation is impugned and his skills questioned by a narrow-minded and legalistic board of enquiry, blinded by their stupidity and determination to turn him from hero into an incompetent egotist.
It’s quite an achievement to turn what was about six minutes of action into a full-length film, and you find yourself cheering for this good man who has been victimized by the system. But my scepticism-antennae began quivering at the end of what had been an entertaining movie with the patriotic declaration that “New York’s finest” had been there, along with Sully, to save the day. Yes, if you had to land a plane on a frozen river anywhere in the world, you’d want it to be in a first-world city with beefed-up emergency services. But, remembering that Clint Eastwood directed this movie, was it true?
Well, as this article in the Guardian indicates: not exactly. The film suggests that the inquiry in a packed room commenced immediately but in reality it did not commence until some months later, and there were only six people in the room and not the bank of onlookers shown in the movie. Of the simulation flights ordered by the enquiry, only half made it to alternative airports. The investigators, not Sully, asked the simulation pilots to delay before attempting the emergency landings.
“Does it matter?” asked my father, who very much enjoyed the movie. Stephen Cass, the author of the Guardian article asks the same question.
But does Sully’s portrayal of NTSB investigators as bullying incompetents matter? After all, whenever a movie based on true events is released, there are always cries of “it didn’t happen that way!” This occurs because of the inevitable changes required when dramatizing real-life events. These include creating composite characters, eliding side issues and compressing chronologies.
It certainly seems that great attention was paid to the details of the cockpit and the emergency procedures on board the aircraft. But is there a bigger truth?
In evaluating such storytelling decisions, what’s important is whether or not the top-line takeaway is fair….It’s not hard to see why this tack appealed to strident libertarian Eastwood. In its populist zeal, the American right wing has been increasingly unwilling to accept the legitimacy of any branch of federal government. Sully meshes perfectly with a worldview where petty and clueless civil servants obstruct real Americans from being great.
The story of the landing of Flight 1549 is a great one in its own right. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but I feel cheated by the politics that have been superimposed onto it.
[Postscript: I recently heard a movie reviewer mention that in a movie ‘based on true facts’, the rule of thumb is that the most memorable scene of the movie is the one that didn’t actually happen. I must remember that.]