Everybody knows what happened on January 15th 2009 when Captain Chelsey ‘Sully’ Sullenberger and First Officer Jeff Skiles landed Flight US Airways 1549 on the Hudson River near Manhattan, New York. All 155 passengers and crew were rescued safely. The event is unprecedented in aviation history. Dual engine failure arising from a collision with a flock of geese was followed by successful landing of an Airbus A320 on urban water and with no loss of life.
Captain Sullenberger was instantly hailed a ‘hero’; a status he earned firstly by the scale of his achievement and subsequently by the intelligence and humility of his performance on the media. An interview on the CBS TV show 60 minutes reinforced the public perception that he is an exceptional man. Although Sully did not seek his ‘hero’ status he recognised the public’s real need for hope. “They want good news” he said.
Sully was right, and so this extraordinary event became the focus of multiple newspaper articles and commentaries, television interviews and books including Sullenberger’s own best-selling auto- biography ‘Highest Duty’. Now that book has been adapted for a major Hollywood motion picture starring Tom Hanks as Sullenberger and Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles. Both men give tremendous performances and the whole cast is brilliantly directed with deft understatement by Clint Eastwood. In almost any other hands this movie would have become just another disaster movie or worse still some sickly attempt at a ‘feel-good’ entertainment. Instead it has become a critical and financial success and Hanks performance has been described as one of the greatest of his career.
The acclaim has not been universal. The aviation authorities were quick to protest their innocence, but they may have misunderstood the movie and its real agenda. They have described their portrayal as ‘the bad guys’ in this Hollywood tale of one mans vindication before the authorities as ‘over-stated’. They have pointed out that their statutory investigation ultimately rejected the assumption that ‘Sully’ had made a disastrous error of judgement by ditching his plane in the water.
Actually the movie is not about Sully’s trial before the aviation authorities. It is neither ‘a disaster movie’ nor ‘a court-room drama’; ‘Sully’: Miracle on the Hudson’ does not fit easily into either of these genres. The movie is an examination of one mans self-doubt. It is a psychological visualisation of the effects of extreme ‘stress’ on an ordinary man doing an ordinary job on an extra-ordinary day. It is about his subsequent experience of insomnia, anxiety and terrifying recollection arising from this shocking traumatic event. It is a movie about the phenomenon of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
Familiarity with the story was not the only difficulty for the movie makers. Part of the challenge for the screenwriter Tod Komarnicki must have been the acute nature of the events and their brevity. The Airbus A320 engine failure occurred three minutes after take off and the landing on the Hudson was complete in just a few seconds. It would be a challenge for any writer to extend such a sudden and short lived trauma into a ninety minute drama.
The sheer rapidity of the events posed another problem for Sullenberger himself. He explains to his co-pilot Skiles that ‘forty years of my flying experience will be judged on just 200 seconds of flight time!’. At this stage Sully’s character still thinks that the actual events are over and done with. What Sully discovers along with the movie goer is that the stressful experience of traumatic events is recurrent. The problem with trauma is that it isn't over. Painful recollections enter into the mind despite every attempt to dismiss them. Such distressing ‘flashbacks’ are characteristic of an an acute stress reaction and they are vivid and terrifying in themselves. They are akin to re-lived experience. In the movie we see versions of the Airbus crash more than 20 times. Over and over again the potentially horrific events re-occur, in his dreams, or prompted by random reminders and or during his agonising periods of self examination.
The movie makes good use of these ‘flashbacks’ as a dramatic device, but it is never exploitative. It remains sympathetic and harmonious with ‘Sully's’ journey to recovery, but ‘Flashbacks’ nonetheless provide more gripping opportunity for cinematic re-visualisation of the trauma than anyone would have expected. No wonder ‘Sully’ has turned out to be the most successful film ever launched on the dramatic high definition ‘IMAX’ format.
Vivid flashbacks are not the only post traumatic stress phenomena depicted in the movie. For a time Sully is shown as isolated and avoidant, insomniac and hyper-vigilant, and often full of self-doubt. His experiences persist despite the support of his passengers and crew, his wife and his family. In the movie the cockpit of the Airbus A320 becomes a visual metaphor for his private mental experience of near catastrophic reality. His vindication before the airline authorities becomes less significant than his own personal recovery through radical acceptance of this experience.
The dramatic focus on relived events mimics much of modern trauma-focussed cognitive behavioural therapy. The movie, without ever making explicit reference to it, shows that re-exposure to feared events can lead to recovery. Just before the verdict is announced and having witnessed many repeated simulations of the events Tom Hanks character asks for a brief recess. He seeks a moment to speak with his co-pilot. There he carefully tells Skiles that he has come to his own view that they had both acted properly. This is what counts. Before they return to the courtroom Sully thanks his co-pilot and commends him for being there with him throughout it all. The movie hints at what we have come to know about successful modern therapy. Radical acceptance, commitment and compassion are all keys to recovery.
Ultimately it is the pilots concern for others, his honest intelligence and his skill that makes him seem heroic. This is Hollywood after all, but the real Captain Sullenberger does seem to be a remarkable human being. Tom Hanks performance is pure cinematic gold that never pushes the limits of his heroism beyond credibility. The films depiction of a psychological experience in a sympathetic and constructive fashion makes it a rare event for a movie goer. It is hugely welcome.
Sadly PTSD is not a rare or exceptional phenomenon. Traumatic stress disorders are common. Many people who develop these stress disorders struggle for long periods to find a personal understanding of the events that have happened to them. Too few have access to meaningful therapy following such a trauma and many spend far too long neglected in a characteristic personal suffering that is recurring. While the film never explicitly refers to PTSD or to its amelioration through therapy we must not hesitate to be more outspoken about the reality of this problem or more vocal about the prospect of its successful treatment. A cinematic depiction of successful therapy is surely overdue!
If you would like information about any aspect of this blog, about PTSD or its treatment or any other mental health difficulty please call our free information and support line on (01) 2493 333.