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5 Oct 2016

On Sully and doing your job – On Monday night, HJ and I went to see Sully (Korean posters for the film bear the subtitle: “Miracle on the Hudson River”). This is one of those films that, like Apollo 13 (Kevin has already pointed out how Sully is in many ways a remake of this earlier film), tells a story that is already well known, relying on powerful performances and the appeal of quiet heroism rather than suspense or plot twists. Perhaps for those reasons, we both enjoyed it quite a bit.

“Watching Sully brought into stark relief the importance of people doing their jobs.”

I used the word “heroism” here because it is a term that comes up continuously throughout the film—people are constantly telling Captain Chesley Sullenberger that he is a hero. When he is asked during an interview if he thinks of himself as a hero, he gives a reply that is heard so often it has almost become a cliche: “I don’t feel like a hero. I was just doing my job.” So why is it that people who are often thought of as heroes by others rarely think of themselves as heroes? Is that just one of the defining characteristics of a hero?

The term “hero” has changed in meaning quite a bit over time. The original Greek term “heros” (plural “heroes”) referred to a demi-god—the son of a god and a mortal—like Heracles or Persues, although Homer used the term to refer to warriors in general. The term later came to denote those individuals who possessed the characteristics or abilities of such mythical figures: exceptional strength, courage, etc. Today, the word has a much broader meaning; has “a person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character” as its first definition and “a person who, in the opinion of others, has special achievements, abilities, or personal qualities and is regarded as a role model or ideal” as its second.

If we take the two definitions as representative of modern usage, it doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to apply the term to people like Captain Sully. His denial of the epithet could then be seen as simple modesty: He doesn’t feel that what he did was particularly “courageous,” “noble,” or “special” and thus not worthy of the term “hero.” At the end of the film, there is even a moment when we might be tempted to think that he takes this modesty too far. When one of the NTSB officials praises him by saying, essentially, that if it hadn’t been for him, the incident would have most likely ended in tragedy, Sully disagrees. He says that the miracle was possible because everyone did their job: his copilot Jeff Skiles, the cabin crew, the air traffic controllers, the flight mechanics, the ferry operators, etc. It is a noble and admirable sentiment, and we appreciate his humility and willingness to see himself as part of a team rather than a lone hero... but in the back of our minds we’re thinking, “Yeah, sure, everyone did their job, but come on! In the end it all came down to you and your ability to deal with the situation.”

I agree with Sully, though (and, yes, I am drawing on Hanks’ performance of Sully, but the real Captain Sully was very insistent that the “miracle” be presented as a team effort). In the end, he was simply doing his job, just like everyone else. Most of us, of course, do not have jobs where we hold the lives of 155 people in our hands. A bad day on the job for me means that a class maybe doesn’t go quite as well as I had hoped—nobody dies (usually). But this is the job that we ask our airline pilots to do: We ask them to carry people safely across the planet, to perform consistently under stressful conditions, and to quickly make the right decisions in times of crisis. Captain Sully did exactly what he needed to do in that situation—he did his job perfectly. I won’t argue with anyone who wants to call him a hero, I would just caution against using that term in such a way that it obscures the importance of simply doing your job.

What if Jeff Skiles had not been the cool, collected partner that Sully needed in those critical moments? What if the cabin crew had not performed as they had been trained, keeping the passengers calm and overseeing a successful evacuation? What if the flight mechanics who take care of the plane had not properly done any one of the thousands of little things that their job requires of them? So many things could have gone wrong on that January day, but (with the exception of the unavoidable multiple bird strikes) none of them did. The mind-boggling “miracle” on the Hudson was actually a long sequence of tiny “miracles” that led to all 155 people on that plane surviving.

And since we’re on the topic of people doing their jobs, I should mention the portrayal of the NTSB in this film. I was just talking to HJ about the film, and she was under the mistaken impression that the NTSB were insurers or something along those lines, as opposed to a government agency whose job is to make aviation safer. I can’t really blame her, either—in the film, the goal of the NTSB investigators seemed to be to pin the crash (which Sully reminds them was actually a “forced water landing”) on Sully, and they do their very best to prove that he made the wrong decisions. Well, it turns out that the real-life investigators had a problem with this, because that’s not how it played out at all. As Sully says in the film, they, too, are just doing their job; when the investigation was concluded, the NTSB were able to make thirty-five recommendations to make flying safer in the future.

I’m belaboring this point here because we’ve seen time and time again what happens when people don’t do their jobs. Watching this film in Korea, it’s hard not to draw comparisons with the Sewol ferry disaster. If you’re not familiar with this incident, my use of the word “disaster” should be a clue as to how things turned out. In April of 2014, the Sewol ferry capsized and sank off the coast of Korea with 476 people on board. Over three hundred people died; only 172 survived. Unlike Sully’s fateful flight, though, this was an accident that never should have happened. The ferry was overloaded (and those in charge knew it was overloaded, because they lied about the load in the records), and an inexperienced crewman at the helm made a sharp turn that caused the ferry to list and eventually capsize when the excessive cargo shifted.

This was not the end of the tragedy, though. All told, the ferry took around two-and-a-half hours to sink. That should have been plenty of time to evacuate the passengers. But the tragedy of errors continued. In those critical early moments, rather than contacting Jindo, which was the closest vessel traffic service to their location, the crew instead contacted Jeju, which was much farther away. By the time Jindo was contacted, precious time had been wasted. Even then, though, the situation might have been salvaged and the passengers might have been saved. But even as the ship sank and water flooded into compartments, a crew member—without consulting the manual to check on the proper procedure—ordered passengers to stay where they were. Roughly forty minutes later, the captain finally gave the order to evacuate, although it is unknown how many passengers actually heard this order; the captain was one of the first people to evacuate the ship and be rescued.

I could go on, but I’m kind of shaking with rage right now just thinking about all of this again. (I actually wrote everything up to this point last night and intended to post it before going to bed, but I had to stop here because I was so upset.) The Wikipedia page on the disaster has a pretty good rundown of everything that went wrong, but the short version is that just about everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong—because a lot of people failed, in spectacular fashion, to do their jobs. There are other things that could be said about the disaster and why so many people died, but that’s not really the focus of this entry. It’s just that watching Sully brought into stark relief the importance of people doing their jobs. The miracle on the Hudson is an example of how tragedy can be averted when this happens, and the Sewol ferry disaster is an example of how we bring tragedy on ourselves when it doesn’t.

So I guess that’s not so much a review of the film as it is a discussion of what the film made me think of. If good art makes you think, then Sully is good art. And it was also an enjoyable experience. It is true that the drama with the NTSB was manufactured, but I suppose you do need some drama—and I will admit that it made for a good story. And, in the end, even the NTSB investigators come over to Sully’s side and express their admiration for him. As a New Yorker at heart, I’ve always had great admiration for Captain Sullenberger as well—it’s hard not to. But I would like to think of this film not as a hagiography, but as an object lesson in how the impossible can become possible if everyone has a proper sense of duty and just does their job.

Send me your thoughts.

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