Review of “Sully”: an example of fake history in the making

Summary:  James Bowman describes a small but telling example of making fake news in the film Sully, showing how Hollywood turns an episode of skillful piloting into a fake morality tale about a heroic individual vs. an irrational bureaucracy. People watch films and learn not just about the specific incidents depicted, but also the larger lessons they show.

Sully: Miracle On The Hudson
Available at Amazon.


Film review: “Sully sullied?

By James Bowman.

American Spectator, 23 September 2016.

Posted with his generous permission.

Should we be troubled by the Clint Eastwood’s mild falsification of what actually happened after “the Miracle on the Hudson”?

Whatever else it does or doesn’t do, Clint Eastwood’s Sully makes an interesting case study for those of us who think a lot about the relationship between movies, or popular culture in general, and real life. Because the whole story of “the Miracle on the Hudson” on January 15, 2009 took only seconds to unfold, and because it was caused by Canada geese being sucked into a jet airliner’s engines and was therefore seemingly uncomplicated by any human drama behind the scenes, it must have been obvious to Mr. Eastwood from the start that some such drama had to be confected for the movie — if not quite ex nihilo then by way of exaggeration of what really happened.

He chose an inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board which actually took place months after the plane’s “forced water landing” — as Captain Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) insists on calling it, as opposed to a “crash” — relocating the hearing to the days immediately after the event and showing his hero, still suffering from post-traumatic stress (we can watch his CGI nightmare of crashing the plane into Manhattan), being badgered by his bureaucratic inquisitors for taking an unnecessary risk with his passengers’ lives by ditching in the Hudson instead of making an emergency landing at one of the New York area airports. A computer simulation is said to have found he could have made such a landing. Sully, then, in the time-honored fashion of courtroom drama, gets to explain to his dunderheaded tormentors why the simulation is wrong.

It never happened in real life, but the story sort of fits with a familiar movie “narrative” of corrupt bureaucrats working against ordinary guys and gals who have behaved heroically and on behalf of corporate interests, in this case the airline (U.S. Airways, as it then was) and its unnamed insurers, who are supposed to be trying dishonestly to prove the hero no hero at all. There is also, slightly buried here, a man-vs.-machine drama — the computer simulation versus Captain Sully’s having “eyeballed it” — as well as just a hint of man-vs.-media as, for a brief moment at least, the TV reporters who are such a big part of the story scent scandal arising out of the NTSB inquiry.

Sully: aircraft o the Hudson

The more interesting machine in this case, I would have thought, was the Airbus A320, which took the water landing like a champ and didn’t break up or sink on the spot, giving all the passengers and crew a chance to be rescued, but I guess Clint didn’t want to let a European-based multinational corporation take any of the credit away from brave Captain Sully and his equally brave co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart). Man-vs.-media would have been more congenial to my own prejudices, but that theme remains undeveloped and is, in any case, as much a misdirection as the others. So are hints, never followed up, of trouble at home between the Captain and his wife (Laura Linney), who has little to do and is only present at the other end of several anguished cellphone calls.

Laura Linney
Laura Linney plays Lorraine Sullenberger. Taken at AFI Fest 2007.

In an email to the New York Times, Captain Sullenberger himself, now retired, justified Mr. Eastwood’s misrepresentation of the NTSB’s proceedings by writing “that the tension in the film accurately reflected his state of mind at the time. ‘For those who are the focus of the investigation, the intensity of it is immense,’ he said, adding that the process was ‘inherently adversarial, with professional reputations absolutely in the balance.’” In other words, he felt like he was being treated by the investigative panel like a hostile witness if not a culprit, even if he wasn’t, and that his career, reputation, and pension were, therefore, all at stake. Against that, you have to put the words of the actual chairman of the inquiry, Robert Benzon: “Sully is worried about his reputation, but this movie isn’t helping mine.”

His name and those of the other panel members have been changed in the movie, but he feels understandably aggrieved anyway. Too bad. Nobody’s going to remember him, but everybody’s going to remember Sully. Good old Sully. If the price his legend demands to live on in Mr. Eastwood’s film is Robert Benzon’s own exiguous reputation, who besides Robert Benzon and his family is going to mind? It’s not like he’s going to become a supervillain, the Joker to Sully’s Batman. He’s just a faceless — and pseudonymous — bureaucrat, no more than a cipher standing in for the blind, heartless Washington establishment that everyone hates anyway. Except that, maybe, such falsifications of history are why people hate it in the first place.

I don’t know. You can see the arguments on both sides. But I find that the movie does leave a bit of a bad taste in the mouth, in spite of such greatly moving scenes as that in which Captain Sully refuses to leave the Hudson ferry boat that has picked him up until he has had a head-count of passengers and, finally, someone comes up to him with nothing more than the baldly stated number: 155. It is the number of the passengers and crew on board US Airways flight 1549. And then the number is repeated. As one of the rescuers says to a panicked passenger, “Nobody dies today.”

It would no doubt be foolish to expect anyone in Hollywood to feel bad about setting the genuine emotion of these moments in the midst of so much fakery, but I can’t help feeling kind of bad about it myself.


Editors Postscript

America is awash in fake news, one factor in our decreasing ability to clearly see the world. The government lies, our candidates lie, commercials lie, and even our knowledge of history is contaminated with lies. The cause is simple and obvious: we prefer pleasing stories to hard (often unpleasant) facts. Reform is impossible in America until we recognize this.

James Bowman

About James Bowman

Bowman is a Resident Scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993, movie critic for The American Spectator since 1990, and movie critic for The New York Sun since 2002. He has also contributed to a wide range of other major papers.

Honor: A History
Available at Amazon.

Mr. Bowman is perhaps best known for his book, Honor: A History, and “The Lost Sense of Honor” in The Public Interest.

He has worked as a freelance journalist, serving as American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London from 1991 to 2002, as movie critic of The American Spectator since 1990 and as media critic of The New Criterion since 1993. He has also been a weekly movie reviewer for The New York Sun since the newspaper’s re-foundation in 2002.

See his collected articles at his website.

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17 thoughts on “Review of “Sully”: an example of fake history in the making”

    1. “Labeling” is never that simple, as anyone in Marketing will tell you. I’ve written about the tide of lies overflowing us — a result of our increasingly gullibility. But the label “fake news” brought it to the public’s attention.

      Probably futility, since few will point to the real source. Making it impossible to treat the problem. Rather it’s described as just another burden in the lives of America’s pure and wonderful snowflakes.

  1. Ok
    Continue ….what is the “real source” as you use the term above, in short terms? Really curious about the point you are making.

    Gullibility? Will go read Webster on that, bet it is close to “social naivety”, simple minded. We are that no doubt

    Do understand your point of Labeling however fake news are lies. And those are not truths. Not all that difficult to point out, discuss or counter.

    1. breton,

      “what is the “real source” as you use the term above”

      The real source of the problem is us. We’re the weak link in the Republic’s machinery (details here), something the Founders worried about. As I said in this post:

      “The cause is simple and obvious: we prefer pleasing stories to hard (often unpleasant) facts. Reform is impossible in America until we recognize this.”

  2. I thought this little article was amusing. The Weather Channel creates fake news and Business Insider then promotes it.

    Weather Channel to Breitbart: ‘Climate change is real, and please stop using our video to mislead Americans’” at Business Insider.

    All of this ignoring and distracting from the fact the change in land lower tropospheric heat is a major event that will likely have major weather impacts going forward. Other data sets also show a record change, and the land lower troposphere shows it best for two reasons: it has the most comprehensive geographic coverage of land, it also covers a larger portion of atmosphere than surface station. It indicates a major change in heat flux and heat distribution. And the weather channel should be very aware of this.

    1. Aaron,

      “The Weather Channel creates fake news”

      The weather Channel video in question is “La Nina in Pacific Impacts Winter in New England“, 3 Nov 2016. The title is as hard as news gets. I glanced at it, and it seems accurate.

      “land lower troposphere shows it best for two reasons:”

      What is the basis for that statement?

      Few climate scientists agree with you. Carl Mears, the Chief Scientist at Remote Sensing Systems — one of the two major providers of global temperature data from satellites (I assume that’s what you’re referring to) — agrees.

      The two key scientists producing the other major sat dataset (at the U of AL-Huntsville) are John Christy and Roy Spencer. I don’t recall them saying the sat data is the “best” source of global temp data.

  3. Three points:
    1. Movies = Star Wars (no matter the focus, history, etc. they’re to make money and entertain. I luv’d TOPGUN, many of my friends wanting realism didn’t, ho hum)
    2. If it as stated as a “documentary” then producers, directors need there feet held to the fire. If it is not advertised that way, buyer beware.. see #1
    3. Won’t happen but maybe teachers could spend 30 minutes a week talking about current “hits” and asking students if they believe and encourage them to look up real history… even Wikipedia. Always loved historical fiction, but it did then and now drive me to look up some detail. To me that’s true value of the mode, but teachers need to nudge -even a few- to search for truth.

    1. Project White Horse,

      There is a massive body of evidence, which you can verify by talking with people, that our understanding of history is largely shaped by fiction — books and films. The dime novels gave Americans a fake version of the Wild West. Gone with the Wind and similar works gave a fake version of the happy black slaves in the South. Works such as Sully give a false vision of the government, helping erode our confidence in the Republic’s institutions.

      Star Wars does none of these things.

  4. “Star Wars does none of these things.”

    Well of course not. That’s the point. Go to get entertained. Don’t expect movies to enlighten the masses. If it perks your interest, research, and OBTW a little help from educators wouldn’t hurt.
    What are the odds that Hollywood’s going to change their business model? It’s on us as individuals not to follow over the cliff of fantasy, no?

    1. “Go to get entertained. Don’t expect movies to enlighten the masses.”

      I don’t know what you’re attempting to say. We’re getting reshaped by a rising tide of “fake news” (aka, lies, propaganda, whatever) that is distorting our view of reality. It’s propagating over every media, and a large body of surveys show Americans becoming increasingly ignorant of basic facts about our government and world — and losing confidence in the core institutions of the Republic.

      This is one of my scores of posts documenting how this happens. The cause is, imo, our increasing gullibility and disinterest in facts — which more than offsets the increased availability of information provided by technology. As a result of this, people quite rationally lie to us more often.

      Why is pointing to “Star Wars” relevant to discussion of this problem?

  5. Look, I don’t know how to be more clear:
    Movie makers manipulate stories (mostly) to make money. Star Wars perfect example. Other movies – like Sully – manipulate reality to – wait for it – make money.

    Fake news is out and out lie to manipulate us.
    If they’re good at it we buy the s..t.
    (OBTW,a movie on bomb disposal won an Academy Award a few years back. I though itwas great movie. Turns out the guys who do that for a living thought it was crap. Easy to fool those that aren’t in the profession, but I wouldn’t equate it to “fake” news.)

    Point is focus on movies is wasted effort, Be aware of news, all news, all the time. Some folks are going to believe anything… alas.

  6. Robert: Get on this web site….it’s a Stratfor site….

    Editor of the Fabius Maximus website posted: “Summary: America is awash in fake news, one factor in our decreasing ability to clearly see the world. The government lies, our candidates lie, commercials lie, and even our knowledge of history is contaminated with lies. The cause is simple and obvious: …”

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