The weekend on which America marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11, which could have been an occasion of unrelieved grimness, must have seemed to Warner Brothers Pictures like the perfect opportunity to release a movie about planes in peril that can boast a happy ending and an uplifting message. Turns out that it’s a bit more complicated than that.
First things first: Sully is not an animated sequel from Pixar about a big, lovable blue-furred monster. But it’s also not an uncomplicated feel-good movie about American rugged individualism and heroism under stress, either. Based on – or perhaps “inspired by” is a better descriptor – Highest Duty by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow, Captain Sullenberger’s memoir about the hair-raising events of January 15, 2009, Sully is also a political screed against government bureaucracy by director Clint Eastwood, playing rather fast and loose with the facts.
Not once but thrice, Sully takes the viewer through Sullenberger’s nightmarish experience of having to bring his Airbus A320 loaded with passengers in for a water landing on the icy Hudson River, after an infelicitous encounter with a flock of Canada geese knocked out both of the jet’s engines upon takeoff. All well and good. The scenes reenacting the flight, the white-knuckled decision-making process, the near-crash and the swift, well-coordinated rescue operation are beautifully executed. Visual narrative, acting, cinematography and editing can scarcely be faulted here.
But Eastwood has an axe to grind, and to generate artificial suspense in a movie where the audience already knows that not one of the 155 people aboard US Airways Flight 1549 is doomed to die that day, he portrays the National Transportation Safety Board as meanies. For some very vaguely articulated reason having something to do with insurance, the movie version’s NTSB investigators want to persecute Sully (Tom Hanks) and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), not even letting them go home to see their families after the crash before subjecting them to a grueling “trial” for not trying to bring the aircraft back to land at LaGuardia or Teterboro Airport instead.
As related in Sullenberger’s memoir, the incident investigation was routine, took place months afterwards and did not involve any particular skepticism on the investigators’ parts about the flight officers’ accounts of what they did and why they did it. Captain Sullenberger himself, upon being consulted on Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay, insisted that the NTSB officials’ real names not be used, according to Hanks. The actor doesn’t quite come out and say that the script is a hatchet job, but Stephen Cass of The Guardian was far less diplomatic in his movie review, calling Sully “another right-wing attempt to delegitimize government – and in the process undermine the safety of millions who travel by air, train, road and boat.”
Feature films dramatizing historical events exaggerate, telescope and otherwise massage the facts all the time for purposes of building a compelling narrative, Argo being another good recent example. It’s considered a forgivable variant of artistic license – and let’s face it: Even Shakespeare did it, to flatter the family pride of his Tudor and Stuart patrons. So I’m not about to advocate boycotting Sully just because it tars and feathers some real-life civil servants who did their jobs the way that they were supposed to, without malice or prejudice.
But it does trouble me a bit to know that a certain portion of Eastwood’s intended audience will take his highly skewed version of what happened to these two fine upstanding pilots as gospel, and perhaps as factual confirmation of their preexisting political biases. By all means, go enjoy the movie, and especially the acting; it’s one of Hanks’s best-ever evocations of a decent, competent, hardworking man rattled by self-doubt. But go in there knowing that not all of what you’re seeing is true – and come out ready to discuss what really went down with folks who don’t know any better. It’ll be a public service in this election year.