It’s no wonder that Sully is having a boffo opening weekend. Directed by Clint Eastwood, this Hollywood version of the emergency water landing of a large jet with 150 passengers and 5 crew members tells a tale of calm under pressure and incredible bravery. You may have watched the unbelievable January 15, 2009 real-time footage that showed people standing on the wings of the damaged plane as it sank into the icy Hudson River. Perhaps you clapped as New York City boat operators and helicopter pilots pulled everyone to safety with lightning speed. Surely it was a great day in the Big Apple. Everyone was chatting about the “Miracle of the Hudson.”
While the film (based on the bestselling book) spins a riveting tale of a disaster averted and the investigation that followed, it also reinforces important concepts that apply to the world of risk management – Experience, Team Work and Decisiveness. During an inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board, the point was made, based on flight simulation results, that Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles had sufficient time to return to LaGuardia Airport. As the movie progresses, the Sully character (played wonderfully by Tom Hanks) explains why it is inappropriate to assume that he and his colleague would have been able to instantaneously assess the situation and immediately return to the departure gate. When the simulations are repeated, this time adding thirty-five seconds to allow for the reality that humans are not robots, faux crashes occur. The implication is that the Hudson landing was the right thing to do.
During an interview with actress Laura Linney about her role as Sully’s wife, she affirms this message that “Experience counts – more than a computer simulation, more than an algorithm. Actual human experience is a valuable thing …” I heartily agree with her. Notably, Mr. Eastwood is still working his inspirational magic at the age of eighty six, sharing his experience with moviegoers around the world.
Throughout my career, I’ve seen upfront and close how certain markets don’t behave as expected or models may falter when surprise exogenous shocks occur. Seasoned and knowledgeable professionals who understand the limits of an auto approach and use their judgment should be commended, not impugned. I have often said that risk managers need to spend serious time in the field and not rely on textbooks alone. Unanticipated stuff happens.
The true account and its celluloid depiction likewise lend credence to the importance of working together as a team and avoiding paralysis by analysis. The real life Sully has always credited his colleagues, including three well-trained flight attendants and of course the co-pilot (played with panache by Aaron Eckhart). During his sit-down for CBS, Captain Sullenberger said of the first responders, “Thank you seems totally inadequate. I have a debt of gratitude that I fear I may never be able to repay.”
To anyone who enjoys popcorn and drama, Sully is a must-see but go too for the poignant reminder that kindness counts. I don’t know if its release this weekend was by design but the film debuts when millions around the world mark the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil. Shortly after those horrific events, I visited the Wall Street areas where I had gone to graduate school and worked. The devastation was heartbreaking. Going in and out of Grand Central, it was no less sad to see photographs of missing persons, posted by worried family members and friends. I agree with The Wrap reporter Beatrice Verhoeven who describes Sully as “a joyful story – one that evokes 9/11 without its tragedy” and “celebrates the heroism of first responders without forcing viewers to re-live the agony.” Let’s remember them all.