[After a long hiatus, I am going to resurrect this space for reflection on art and film. Apologies for the radio silence–moving to Ohio and starting a new academic job have taken me away from this page, which was initially a space to try out dissertation ideas. Now that the dissertation is complete (hurrah!), the subjects might diverge even more than before, but will always touch upon art, film, television, and our interactions with technology.]
Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully celebrates the heroism of one man, but more broadly the film scrutinizes the presumed perfection of algorithmic computation over human reaction. The harrowing and expertly directed landing and rescue sequences form the visual and affective core of the film, and the economical script and short running time have the brisk professionalism of its protagonist. This places the film in a kind of paradox: while Eastwood is clearly arguing for the superiority of human action and judgement over computer-generated knowledge, it is precisely the machine-like, masculine brand of professionalism we have come to apply to pilots that is lauded. Characters respond with the director’s brand of stoicism, and even the few women the film chooses to involve in the rescue, the flight attendants, repeat a robotic chorus “Brace! Brace! Brace! Get down, stay down!” behind the cockpit drama. The human factor may have made all the difference, but these human actors have the professionalism and experience to respond like machines.
The central tension of the film lies in the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing in the days following the dramatic landing. Chelsey Sullenburger, played to perfection by Hollywood’s best-ever everyman mythical hero Tom Hanks, and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles, played with great depth by the underrated Aaron Eckhart, face a routine investigation to determine if their decision to make a water landing in the Hudson was heroic or reckless. Years of experience argue the former, whereas the computer argues the latter. The committee’s head, played with villainous overtones by Ed O’Malley, and the second investigator, played by the underutilized Anna Gunn, repeatedly reference computer simulations and algorithmic calculations to critique Sully’s decision not to go to a nearby airport. Calculations show one of the engines was working; simulations show you could have made it to Teterboro, and so on. While at times this seems to wrack Sully’s nerves, causing him to doubt if he really is a hero, especially as he talks to his wife (Laura Linney) on the phone, he’s largely steadfast in his decision-making and further emboldened by the public response. Throughout the film he is increasingly recognized and thanked as a hero by bartenders, taxi drivers, talk show hosts, hotel managers, and pretty much everyone else in the city of New York.
New York City is the film’s main supporting character, echoing Sully’s quick thinking and selflessness in their rapid response. The celebration of first responders in the city that never sleeps is of course nothing new in the memory of the last two decades, and the echoes of 9/11 are everywhere in the film. Sully repeatedly has visions and nightmares of the flight going wrong and crashing into buildings–scenes that though powerfully executed are emotionally manipulative. If that weren’t enough to remind you of the recent memories haunting the city’s many bystanders and witnesses, one line towards the film’s end drives it home: “It’s been awhile since we’ve had any good news in this city…especially when it comes to airplane crashes.” I never said this film was particularly subtle.
Its lack of subtlety caused some controversy, as members of the NTSB felt the film’s portrayal of them was unfairly negative and prosecutorial. Indeed the film’s climactic scene does evoke the closing statement and verdict scenes of courtroom dramas. However when read in relationship to the film’s central tension–of humans against computers, or better of machine-like humans against virtual and algorithmic calculations–this portrayal makes more sense. In an attempt to clear his reputation (and burgeoning air safety business), Sully orders for human pilots to simulate his air emergency during the final day of the hearing. Shot in moving pods that resemble science fiction films, these simulations are noticeably cold and calculated. The pilots navigate a multiscreen projection and make their decisions to land at LaGuardia and Teterboro without any of the terror of the actual cockpit, leading to safe landings. When Sully asks that they factor in a short pause to simulate a human response, of course they fail.
The coup de grâce, however, is when all participants in the hearing listen–for the first time–to the cockpit recording via headphones. Once the characters don the headphones, the film deftly cuts to yet another cinematic rendition of the scenario from the birds hitting the engines to the plane skimming water. This mirrors the immersive sonic experience of those present at the hearing and returns to the film’s visual core. Simulations are sterile and unaffecting; experience is cinematic. The film’s flashback structure underscores this argument, and the action and emotion of the longer sequences continue to interject into what otherwise would be a made-for-television courtroom drama.
Overall, Sully succeeds as contemporary folk hero hagiography, which is bluntly driven home by the closing montage of actual photographs of the dramatic landing and reunion of passengers and pilot over the credits. However, the central question Sully posits opens up a can of worms it quickly chucks into the Hudson. That the heroic rescue relied so completely on the human factor and unprecedented circumstances sets up an opposition between the digital and corporeal. However the dramatic scenes of the plane entering the Hudson–indeed the primary means of argumentation to advance this position–depended completely on CGI. The film is careful not to overindulge this technology in its action sequences, however, striking a balance between the human and the digital that the film’s narrative denies.