How do you create dramatic tension in a film that everyone already knows has a happy ending?
That’s the challenge screenwriters faced in Clint Eastwood’s new film Sully, which depicts the true story that’s become known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.” In January of 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks in the movie) safely landed an Airbus A320 in New York’s Hudson River after a flock of birds caused both engines to lose power just minutes after takeoff. All 155 passengers aboard the plane survived,with only a few suffering minor injuries.
It’s a dramatic story, but not one with real villains, unless you count the birds (and that movie’s already been done). In order to give his film some sort of friction, beyond the short but intense water landing, Eastwood reportedly made antagonists out of the National Transportation Safety Board, the US federal agency responsible for investigating major transit accidents, including the one on that cold winter day seven years ago.
And the real-life investigators are not happy with how they’re portrayed in Eastwood’s buzzed-about drama.
Robert Benzon, the now-retired head of the NTSB investigation of the accident, made a round of interviews this week, speaking out against what he argued was an exaggerated and unfair depiction of the US federal agency.
“From what I hear, this is somewhere between Sharknado 2 and Sharknado 3,” said Benzon, who has not yet seen the film and is relying on its trailer and second-hand reports, in an interview with Bloomberg, referencing the hilariously unrealistic Syfy films. “I just hope it isn’t as bad as everyone is telling me it is.”
“We weren’t out to hose the crew,” he told the New York Times. “Sully is worried about his reputation, but this movie isn’t helping mine.”
In reality, the NTSB conducted a routine investigation to ascertain the cause of the accident and ensure it wouldn’t happen again. Far from blaming or criticizing the captain for his action, the agency’s May 2010 report supported the narrative of Sullenberger’s heroism.
The report confirmed that a large flock of birds caused both engines to fail. And it not only absolved Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles of any wrongdoing whatsoever, but also praised them for saving the lives of all 155 passengers.
The investigators’ flight simulations landed the plane successfully at nearby airports only eight out of 15 attempts, and that was without factoring in the real-life response time of a pilot in that situation. In the one simulation where that was considered, the plane crashed trying to reach LaGuardia Airport.
“There was no effort to crucify him or embarrass him,” Malcolm Brenner, an NTSB human behavior specialist who was part of the accident’s investigation, told Bloomberg. “If there were questions, it was to learn things.”
You wouldn’t know that from watching the trailer for the film (below), which shows NTSB investigators interrogating Sullenberger and claiming that he could have made it safely back to the airport instead of ditching the aircraft in the river.
And according to some reviews of the film, it indeed depicts the federal investigators in the skeptical, adversarial light previewed by the trailer.
“The only way Eastwood can think of to surprise us is by making up stuff that didn’t happen and then lodging it in Sully’s nightmares,” wrote The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr, who dubs Sully a “straw movie” for manufacturing a villain out of the NTSB for the sake of dramatic tension.
Knocking the film for creating an artificial villain, from a film criticism standpoint, is one thing. But what of the ethics of that decision? Is it okay to heighten the drama in order to make a more compelling movie? What if it damages the reputation of those involved?
Sully himself has argued that the film rightly communicates how he felt at the time, under intense media and bureaucratic scrutiny. He told the New York Times that the investigation was “inherently adversarial, with professional reputations absolutely in the balance.”
Allyn Stewart, one of the film’s producers, told the New York Times that the film is not meant to be a documentary, and argued that it tells a truthful story through the eyes of Sullenberger and Skiles.
This problem is unique to a growing subset of films that are based on real-life events of the recent past. Because this aviation accident occurred only seven years ago, it’s still relatively fresh in the minds of those who lived through it—including the NTSB investigators.
Ultimately, Sully looks to be a movie about bureaucracy, with one heroic action sequence shown at the beginning to set the table. Unless your audience is entirely made up of aviation buffs, there’s no way to make a routine government inquiry into a non-lethal accident entertaining without somehow ratcheting up the tension.
The NTSB investigators who feel they’ve been wronged by Hollywood’s need to entertain seem to have valid complaints, but that does not mean directors should stop making films based on true events.
Perhaps they should just pick more interesting stories to tell.