There are a few things to be learned from “Sully,” the fact-based film about the US Airways pilot best known for declaring the Hudson River a runway. First, we should all pay more attention to the pre-flight safety briefing. Second, we should stop calling the splash landing – and the actions of Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and his crew – miraculous. This was no miracle.
A miracle, by its very definition, is scientifically inexplicable. So “miraculous” is subject to perception. Take smallpox: Long before vaccinations existed, people noticed that once you got smallpox, you didn’t get it again. Of course, now we know that’s because of [science words science words science words], but back then, the why of it all must have seemed miraculous.
“Sully” is a fine film – though director Clint Eastwood, as with “American Sniper,” slides into hagiography – but what’s notable is that it mainly serves to demystify the “Miracle on the Hudson.” Typically (today and throughout history), God gets the credit for the things that go right in the world. In “Sully,” the Almighty is never explicitly thanked. And thank God for that.
During the six-minute flight, Sullenberger did everything right. We know this because no one ended up dead. To attribute that to some inexplicable force is to explain away not only Sullenberger’s immense skill and training, but physics itself. It wasn’t the hand of God that guided that plane down, but the principle of Bernoulli. I’m a fan of God, but I cannot believe in a supreme being who apparently fiddled with the US Airways scheduling computer to make sure the best pilot was on duty for Flight 1549 so that those 155 people could live. It would make more sense for God to simply move the birds that caused the engine failure to begin with. It would also make more sense for God to have spent that time dealing with the 21,000 people who die of hunger or hunger-related illness every day.
I have no idea how much credit, if any, Sully the man gives God for surviving that flight, but “Sully” the movie gives none. And that’s admirable. A weaker movie would have given God a cameo at the very least – a scene with Hanks, hands clasped, looking upward in gratitude as tears well in his eyes. That would have wrecked the whole point of the movie: The extraordinary actions of an extraordinary man, not a supernatural whim, saved that plane. Just because something is explainable doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of celebrating – in fact, I’d argue that Flight 1549 is more extraordinary because it is so knowable. We are a species who cannot fly, but we wanted to, so we built machines that could make that happen. We can learn things so complex that we can do what our ancestors would call witchcraft. Though we can be so self-centered, there are many among us who, when they see people shivering on the wings in the middle of a river, swearing that next time they’re taking Greyhound, rush to help. To call Capt. Sullenberger’s actions miraculous is to miss the real magic.