The Truth About the Portrayal of the NTSB in Eastwood’s Sully
A review of the Clint Eastwood directed movie with Tom Hanks as Sully has received a variety of reviews. The theatrical intent of this docudrama is set by its own tagline: “The Untold Story Behind the Miracle on the Hudson.” Here is one section which raises issues or relevance to aviation safety:
But the filmmakers faced one big problem: Where’s the suspense? The facts are well-known: The flight itself lasted all of four minutes—from take off at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, to that unlucky collision with a flock of geese that took out both engines, after which passengers endured a heart-stopping ride as Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles made the call to ditch the Airbus A320 in an icy Hudson River rather than return to the airport. The evacuation and water rescue took only 24 minutes, as ferries and other vessels in the area quickly came to the rescue. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation and public hearing that followed were anticlimactic—the crew, including the three flight attendants on board, had done the right thing, according to the board’s final report.
That’s, well, kind of boring. Director Eastwood has admitted that he needed a villain. “Where’s the antagonist?” he reportedly asked when approached about the project. Sully’s best-selling book, Highest Duty, was more inspirational than a tell-all, and offered no candidates for the role of black hat. So the filmmakers solved their no-drama problem, in true Hollywood fashion, by making one up.
Actually, they made up an entire band of baddies: a glowering tribunal of investigators who torment Sully and Skiles for days immediately after the accident, not just questioning their decisions, but contradicting their accounts. While they’re identified in the film as NTSB officials, that’s where the resemblance to reality ends. These celluloid NTSB sleuths are fictional characters—an odd twist, given that almost all the other people depicted on screen, like passenger Jim Stefanik, and air traffic controller Patrick Harten, who took Sully’s mayday call, are real people identified by their actual names.
Other reviewers of movies have not been as critical of Mr. Eastwood’s movie citing “literary license.”
Literary License is a term of art. Drama and fiction benefit from a writer’s ability to embellish on real life. By adding an unexpected quirk or by creating foreshadowing or by highlighting symbols of good and evil or by creating an antagonist, the person with the pen in hand entertains the audience.
As liberally as the literary license may be construed, there are limits; maybe the legal rules of libel do not establish bright lines, but the freedom to write has boundaries which SHOULD, not must, be followed.
Responsibility is a critical corollary to the exercise of this privilege. Certainly, anyone who is a strident libertarian must place high value on the individual’s need to voluntarily exercise discretion in creating a story; failure of a citizen to adhere to that duty responsibly fuels a response from a government.
When literary license does harm to some important public policy, the creator of the work of fiction should back off by the exercise of his or her conscience. Some thoughts:
No doubt about it, being cross examined can be a harrowing experience. Sitting in a public forum, being told that truthful answers are important with a room filled with reporters are stimuli which raise all but the calmest individual. NOTE: the equanimity developed in a cockpit after years and years of practicing procedures does not create the emotional callous need to give testimony. Sully was in his element in the left-hand seat of an airplane; that did not prepare him for any hearing.
- So, Captain Chesley Sullenberger might well have
complained about an NTSB inquisition—but he didn’t. Neither in any contemporaneous accounts nor in his book Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, did the Captain complain of any governmental abuse.Based on knowledge of the NTSB proceedings and quotes from present & past investigators, the notion that their investigators cross-examined Sully in a Gestapo style is a gross mischaracterization. According to several sources the AIC was in awe of Sully’s piloting skills. Here is a quote from someone who truly is an expert of the subject: Although I admit, I have yet to see this movie, I have taken note of the promos which portray the investigators as “hanging judges” out to get the crew. Based on my experience I find this extremely unlikely. All the retired investigators quoted in this article I know well, and it is just not the way they operate. The IIC, Bob Benzon I worked with many times and is “a righteous stand up guy.” Malcolm Brenner, a professional and highly experienced Human Performance investigator, no doubt asked questions about alcohol and drugs etc. but those are standard questions which MUST be asked. There are many things I have criticized the Safety Board for in the past, but apparently this investigation was properly and professionally done, and Hanks and Eastwood are guilty of inaccurately portraying the NTSB as “bad guys” purely in the interest of Hollywood hype. I have also added the link to the official NTSB report, which is complimentary of the crew (in government speak, of course): http://www.ntsb.gov/investiga…/AccidentReports/…/AAR1003.pdf
- Eastwood is a self-proclaimed libertarian. (1) US Flight 1549 the flight was all of 3:52 long and everyone coming to the movie was likely to know about the outcome; so Eastwood needed filler and (2) great story tellers/fiction writers know that an antagonist is needed. So an anti-government theme and bad government bureaucrats.
- The problem is that the NTSB’s #1 information resource for aircraft accidents is living pilots. The movie’s claim to be a documentary may likely discourage future pilots from testifying. ALPA pilots have great counsel for such proceedings, but GA pilots do not and probably will not hire knowledgeable counsel. The impact of Eastwood’s creative license is to diminish the NTSB’s important safety function.
- Coincidentally, the movie fails to provide the level of credit to the flight attendants, whose professionalism and courage contributed to the passengers’ successful evacuation. Equally the first responders deserve high kudo’s.
No doubt that aviation has been given favorable treatment in many, many movies. Thank you, Hollywood. It is also recognized that airplanes and airports have been the venue for scary thrillers and comedies; much appreciated! Mr. Eastwood’s need to create an antagonist is understandable. But, by making the NTSB the object of his cinematic scorn in a “fiction” labeled “The Untold Story Behind the Miracle on the Hudson,” the Director of Sully has done no favors for aviation safety.
Clint did not go ahead and make Aviation’s day with his Sully shot.
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