There’s a great Don Henley song that talks about our obsession with the worst possible news stories, and how that’s what everyone wants to see. (There’s a cover out right now by Nickelback, a band people love to hate, and I don’t get that, either…but that’s a digression) There’s been a (too-)long-held mantra in the news business that “if it bleeds, it leads.” And now it’s coming in the form of movie reviews and commentary for a film about a real-life event.
This week, Warner Bros releases SULLY, directed by Clint Eastwood, about the “Miracle on the Hudson” emergency landing of a US Airways passenger jet in New York’s Hudson River. On that day, January 15, 2009, 150 passengers, 3 flight attendants, and 2 cockpit crew members were on the edge of being another sad statistic in air-travel, and another open wound to the NYC area. But instead (Spoiler, for those who were living in a cave seven years ago!) everyone lived. Through four decades of experience, the pilot – Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – pulled off an amazing feat, belly-flopping the plane in the frigid water, where New York and New Jersey ferries responded and picked up everyone that had been on the plane, a little soggy and cold, but truly no worse for the wear.
That’s the history part of today’s lesson. It’s a story that really happened. It’s not fiction created for the big screen, we watched the water rescue unfold on the news (the landing happened too fast, but there’s still video of it). The captain was (rightfully) hailed as a hero.
And now comes the film.
From people who don’t, apparently, understand dramatic storytelling, I’ve seen a couple of common refrains of complaint about the movie, and I just don’t understand them.
First up, I’ve seen people saying “why do we need this movie? We already know how it ends, why should waste the money?” We knew how TITANIC was going to end. We know how every movie about WWII is going to end. We knew how the Apollo 13 mission turned out. So why make those movies? The answer is simple to say, and hard as hell to do: It’s the humanity of the stories. It’s not a news blurb, it’s not a line on a scrolling ticker. It’s what these people lived and felt and thought. The story is mostly relived through Sullenberger’s eyes, but we also get glimpses of the men and women that could do nothing but hold on and (if they were so inclined) pray. Yes, we know how the story ends. But what Eastwood has done with this film is shown us, and to a degree brought us into, how the story happened.
Next, I’ve seen people saying that it’s a bunch of hype over a guy who just did his job. And you know, they’re right. Sullenberger himself has said much the same thing about what happened that day. But here’s the other thing: Those people, including the good Captain, are also wrong. A firefighter gets paid to run into a burning building, but that doesn’t make it less heroic when they come out carrying an infant. When a crazy person is shooting up a mall, the police are paid to run toward the gunfire while everyone else is running away. That doesn’t lessen the impact of their actions, though. And Captain Sullenberger, along with First Officer Jeff Skiles, were paid to get those passengers back on the ground and home to their loved ones. I think part of the attitude of dismal is because we’ve forgotten how dangerous air travel can be. We’ve eliminated as much risk as possible, but sometime stupid, dumb, blind luck – good and bad – rears its head. In this case, it was a catastrophic mechanical loss that, honestly, should have killed every person in that plane and who knows how many on the ground. But that didn’t happen, because the pilots were “just doing their job.” When the routine becomes the dramatic, those we barely think of at all become the heroic. That’s the way of the world.
And lastly, I’ve seen comments that are a combination of the two above: “The story is boring. No one even died, what’s the big deal?” That no one even died is the big deal. That’s kind of the whole point. At the time this happened, NYC was still recovering from the events of September 11th a few years earlier, and from the tragedy of the airliner that crashed in a Queens neighborhood in November of 2001. As is stated in the movie, it had been a long time since New York had a good story to tell, especially one involving an airplane. That whole mentality of “no one died, who cares?” is, in my opinion, one of the biggest problems in the country today, not just with the news, but every day. But this is a story where, instead of body bags and shovels, the police and fire crews showed up with Red Cross blankets, dry clothes, and coffee. It’s a real-life, honest fairy-tale ending that, had they written it for fiction, would have been laughed out of the room as too unbelievable to be told.
This isn’t a movie review. I don’t know how to write reviews. This is a stream of thought on the reactions I’ve seen to this movie. If you want to know what I think of the film, that can be summed up in three words: Go See It! It’s Clint Eastwood behind the camera, with Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, and an amazing supporting cast in front of the lens. Yes, there is some dramatic license taken – the NTSB investigation wasn’t nearly as adversarial as it’s portrayed – but that’s a creative decision, and I think it pays off in that it frames Captain Sullenberger’s self-doubt.
This isn’t a review, though. This is about story, and how people are losing sight of what makes a good story. You don’t have to have a body count. You don’t need blood and gore. You don’t need an evil villain in his bowler hat twirling his mustache to show tension. What you need is humanity, and the character. The story will then tell itself.