Review: Sully (film)

Promotional poster for Sully. For discussion of fair use of the image, see is Clint Eastwood’s September 2016 film about the pilot that landed an Airbus A320 passenger airplane in the Hudson River off Manhattan on the afternoon of January 15, 2009. Both engines of the plane failed after a flock of geese collided with the plane shortly after takeoff. All aboard survived. The surprising “success” of the response was primarily attributed to the calm reaction of Pilots Captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles.

The core conflict in Sully involves the tension between the seemingly obvious success of the response to the engine failure and the second guessing that occurs during formal investigations of any event, which in this case was being performed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The film also portrays Captain Sully questioning his actions, with dream sequences showing alternate outcomes, such as the plane crashing in the heart of the business district of New York City. Had Captain Sully been found to have erred in landing the plane in the Hudson, his career as a pilot and aeronautic safety expert would have ended, resulting in personal ruination.

The movie is relatively short. As a movie-goer, I would not expect Tom Hanks to play a protagonist who was ultimately found to be a failure. Yet Clint Eastwood does heighten the conflict enough that the pain the main character experiences feels real while we watch the film.

Sully provides viewers a chance to experience the roller coaster ride of fear and despair with Captain Sully while knowing that at the end the ride will come to a safe and happy ending.

What if

In Sully, the investigators question whether it was necessary for Captain Sully to land in the Hudson, a landing that destroyed the plane, caused various injuries, and necessitated significant expense on the part of rescuers and responders.

First, we learn the airlines have data suggesting the left engine was still functional, indicating that the plane could have returned to a nearby airport.

Second, we are told that computer simulations show that even with the dual engine failure, it should have been possible for the plane to successfully returned to runways at either La Guardia or Teterboro airports.

Captain Sully requests that live pilots attempt to land the plane in the simulators. Here again, it is shown that the pilots could have reached a runway.

Realism in Second Guessing the Past

In Sully, Captain Sully points out that it was unrealistic in the simulations to presume that a decision could have been made immediately following the bird strike. The NTSB asks the live pilots to repeat the simulations with a 25 second delay inserted between the time of bird strike and the decision to return to a nearby runway. With that extra delay, it is demonstrated that an attempt to land on a runway would have resulted in total loss of life for all aboard, as well as the possibility of additional casualties on the ground. Other factors come to light that validate Captain Sully’s account of the incident. Thus Captain Sully is entirely vindicated.

Wouldn’t it be Nice…

In watching Sully, I thought of the ongoing controversies regarding Joseph Smith. Any number of armchair theorists have presumed that Joseph erred greatly, that another set of actions would have resulted in all the good Joseph did without any of the bad.

I could wish that Joseph’s actions could be distilled into something that could be modeled in a simulator. Failing that, I wish we could have a total view of all that was going on in Nauvoo between 1840 and 1845. Specifically, I wish I had complete knowledge of the period of time Emma Smith referred to when she said, “the time had been when charity had covered a multitude of sins…”

I opine that Joseph faced terrors of which we are largely unaware. I suspect if we knew the totality of what was going on, we would find Joseph’s actions to have been far more praiseworthy in the main than most currently grant.

Meanwhile, we have concise set pieces like Sully, where enough of the truth can be known with certainty to support a conclusive determination regarding whether an act was praiseworthy or fundamentally flawed.

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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but that Emma was right to assert she had been Joseph's only true wife.

6 thoughts on “Review: Sully (film)

  1. I have a close friend who’s a captain flying the same aircraft Sully flew. His take on the movie: extremely accurate in every detail so far as what went on in the cockpit of the airliner. The actual hearings after the fact lasted 18 months before Sully was “exonerated” for his actions and were not nearly so adversarial as depicted in the movie. That said, it was a rarity for the investigators to have in the room the men who’s voices were on the cockpit-voice recorders. It allowed them to make a more accurate assessment of what happened.

    Meg is right. We don’t have the luxury of asking Joseph directly today in our ongoing assessment of what he did so many years ago because he’s dead. Even if he were around to defend his actions that may not be enough… it certainly wasn’t while he was alive.

    There are but two things we can do. One is what the movie showed Sully did during much of the investigation: look at the results of his choices. In his case, 155 people are alive who otherwise wouldn’t be. In Joseph’s case, millions of people live better, happier lives because of his choices. The other is we have the witness of the Holy Ghost to tell our hearts things impossible for our brains to ever know in this life about Joseph Smith. Despite the critics’ rants, it’s enough.

    Great article Meg.

  2. Thank you, Ken.

    I had intended to insert the information about how long it took the NTSB to reach their final conclusion. Even though the reality of the investigation wasn’t as adversarial as shown in the film, it must have been hell to have the investigation go on for so long. For example, there was the question of whether the left engine had actually failed. Once recovered, there was the lingering question of whether the damage was due to the reported bird strike or some other cause. It finally came down to identifying that both engines had biological residue confirming the engines had “ingested” Canada geese.

  3. I note the movie doesn’t mention how Canada geese were eradicated in the vicinity of New York City in the wake of the incident. The killing of thousands of birds would have detracted from the core message of the film.

  4. I highly recommend the film. I also recommend the TV series Air Crash Investigations (aka Mayday, Air Emergency and Air Disasters), a Canadian series carried by the National Geographic channel. Planes crash for all sorts of reasons.

    Clearly Sully made the right decision. He said of the event, “One way of looking at this might be that, for 42 years, I’ve been making small regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training…And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” There is a lesson there for our own lives.

  5. At first I wasn’t really interested in watching the movie but I felt it was truly worthwhile. Review is often necessary but it fails if there is inadequate information. In relation to history it is important to realize that most relevant information is simply no longer extant.

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