Saturday, September 17, 2016

Sully (2016)

One of my favourite news items was the miracle airplane landing on the Hudson River. I first heard about it on CNN. My jaw dropped and I got goosebumps when I saw photos of the passengers queued on the wings of the plane while rescuers loaded them as fast as they could into boats. I was particularly happy about this news item because it came a few years after that fateful day in September 2001, when two planes crashed into the two towers of the World Trade Centre

And so when one of my classmates at the Alliance Fran├žaise de Manille said that a movie was made out of that story, I just had to watch it. Learning that Tom Hanks top-billed the film sealed the deal for me. I got determined to watch it on the big screen. He portrayed Captain Chelsey Sullenberger while Aaron Eckhart played First Officer Jeff Skiles; both of these pilots were seen as heroes for making a controlled water landing on the Hudson River that led to 155 lives rescued, after US Airways 1549's engines were killed by a flock of birds that collided with the plane.

Cool, the story that detailed this water landing was what I expected from Sully... similar to how the crew of Apollo 13 managed to return to Earth, alive, after the Apollo 13's service module exploded in outer space. Coincidentally, Tom Hanks was also the guy who commanded the space ship. So that makes two "successful failures" with him portraying the leader. And that guy, Sully, was good. I'd have him as captain in my flights anytime... if he's still flying commercial planes. I like to believe that all Philippine Airlines pilots are capable of such landings because these pilots are known to be some of the most skilled in the world... after all, the Manila airport runway is said to be one of the more difficult ones to fly in or out of (it's not nerve-wracking, like the more extreme airports).

However, the plot of Sully went beyond the epic water landing and the rescue that followed: the plot was driven by the NTSB investigation into what caused the crash. Was it pilot error? Could the plane have landed in either La Guardia or Teterboro? In such a rare instance, the pilots of a crashed commercial aircraft were there to testify about what happened in the plane as it landed. Too often, the pilot perishes along with everyone in the plane and the NTSB (in the USA; or its equivalent in another country) just has to rely its investigation on the cockpit recordings and flight data recorded by the plane's black box, and parts of the crashed aircraft that can be recovered... just like that fateful MH370 that hasn't been found yet. The pilots were able to correct certain assumptions that the NTSB did to make the computer flight simulations more accurate, similar to actual conditions in the plane during the 208-second flight. Most importantly, they put humanity back in the story; that is, they emphasised that they had to make split-second decisions after eyeballing the situation. There was no time, in that 208-second flight, to do the maths as they evaluated engine capacity, turned on the emergency functions in the plane, and talked with the radio tower. Once these factors were considered, they were able to prove that the best option, the only option, was landing on the Hudson.

What I liked was the side story about Sully's life outside the airplane. Because he and Skiles survived, the media hounded them nonstop during the investigation. They were suffering from PTSD as they seemingly haven't been debriefed or counseled after the crash... they were just thrown straight into the investigation, the interviews... and then there's family. Skile's family wasn't featured in the movie; only Sully's. His wife's reaction to the crash was epic and most relatable, made possible by Laura Linney. Mrs Sullenberger wasn't aware that the plane landed on the Hudson River when her husband called to say that he was okay. It took her several days to absorb the fact that he could have died that day because she was on the phone with him, assuring him that things would be okay and that he's a hero. She also had media sprawled on her front yard, waiting to catch a sighting or an interview with her and the family... very similar to Jim Lovell's family when he and his crew were still struggling to get Apollo 13 into the Moon's free-return trajectory.

The flight attendants in the movie showed that they are not in airplanes only to serve food. How they kept calm as they warned everyone to brace for impact was impressive. And then they got everyone to safety in that emergency situation. They performed really well. It takes a lot of years of practice and training to be in that calm and collected state. My respect for this profession is renewed. I remember the Lufthansa stewardess who told me where and how to get my own snack during my long flight to Germany in 2008. She said it was her job to ensure that we're safe which is why she was taking a break after her shift; looked like there was only one set of flight attendants or the next shift was still dealing with passenger in front of the plane.

Goosebumps. Clint Eastwood is such a good director. I'm going to get the book this movie is based on.

And from now on, I'm going to listen to those flight attendants more seriously and I'll read the safety card as they instruct.