October 22nd 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Bill Shorten imposes his political will on the nation

UKRAINE Russia responsible for MH17 crash: investigation

EDITORIAL Learning the lessons of SA power meltdown

THE ECONOMY Warnings call for new economic policies

CULTURE WARS Shame, pride and the AFL's arrogant posturing

OBITUARY Shimon Peres: last of Israel's elder statesmen

REGIONAL AFFAIRS Shifts in Australia-Indonesia relations

EUTHANASIA Paul Kelly makes the case against euthanasia

MANUFACTURING Australia's once and future car industry

MUSIC The dolorous tale of the disappearing tail

CINEMA In praise of professionalism: Sully

BOOK REVIEWS ASIO in the spotlight: official history vols I & II


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In praise of professionalism: Sully

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, October 22, 2016

Sully is an understated and professional film about understated professionals, a motion picture poem on the virtues of competence and cooperation. Even the film’s antagonists are not so much villains as they are professionals seeking to make sense of an event dubbed “miraculous”.

The movie is about “the miracle on the Hudson”, the 2009 forced landing of US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River after a bird strike took out both engines, a landing in which all 155 passengers and crew survived.

The film opens with a nightmare – a commuter jet crashing into New York City. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) wakes from his sleep, his unconscious mind still playing over all the ways his flight could have gone wrong. Sully successfully landed his plane and his passengers and crew were saved, but the trauma of the event – of what could have happened – still plays on his mind.

Tom Hanks as Sully.

Shuttling backwards and forwards in time, Sully explores the event itself, and its aftermath, in particular the investigation into the landing by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and how Sully and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), deal with it and the media attention that they receive. Sully is immediately lionised as a hero, but the NTSB investigators have questions: was there a dual-engine loss as Sully claimed? And could they have made their way safely to an airport runway? A water landing is a dangerous thing, particularly in the freezing cold of a New York winter.

Throughout the film Sully is portrayed as a dedicated and calm professional, a man whose decades of flying experience gave him an edge in dealing with an unknown and unprecedented occurrence. But Sully is not alone in his professionalism. Skiles and the cabin crew also kept their cool, and their calmness helped maintain order and discipline, especially when it came time to evacuate the aircraft.

This professionalism does not, however, shield the pilots from self-doubt, doubt suggested by the investigators when they claim that the initial reports show that only one engine had failed. Nor does it shield them from the anxiety-driven flashbacks that accompany surviving such a trauma. And with that comes the fear, at least for Sully, that his actions endangered the lives of all those on board, that he is not the hero the media portray him to be, that he is, in fact, a fraud.

This internal conflict affects Sully’s personal life. He finds it hard to communicate what is happening and what he is feeling to his wife Lorrie (Laura Linney), who in turn is also trying to deal with the mass of media that has taken to camping in their driveway.

In this, Sully makes an oblique commentary on the nature of the contemporary media – that the press is looking for heroes, but also looking for villains; that they seek to translate complex circumstances into simple, more comprehensible sound bites; and that what drives them is a desire to be present at all things of importance, but without themselves being involved.

This duality between “events as they happen” and their re-presentation for mass consumption is further reinforced by the film’s more “meta”, hyper-real elements. Media personalities, like Katie Couric and David Letterman, play themselves for the film, as do many of the rescuers, such as the scuba cops and the ferry captain. This works to emphasise both the film’s realism and its artifice; to pay tribute to those involved; and to pay tribute to the power of cinema.

Despite this striving for accuracy, the movie makes a serious misstep in its treatment of the investigation and the investigators. The investigation took 18 months to reach its conclusion, not the days that the film presents, and the investigators, far from alleging that Sully was mistaken in his actions, concluded early on that he and Skiles had done everything right.

This unfortunate approach could be the result of one of two things: the need that Hollywood filmmaking has for a villain as antagonist, or director Clint Eastwood’s well-known libertarianism and distrust of government. Nonetheless, Eastwood himself is the consummate professional, and his personal politics are less significant than his desire to tell a good story.

And Sully is, above all, a good story. It celebrates the best in humanity – from Sully and Skiles in the cockpit, to the crew and the passengers, who were notable for their calm and discipline, to the ferry crews and the first responders, who, working together, ensured that no lives were loss and that there were no serious injuries. It shows what happens when everyone works together freely for the common good.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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