Silver screen, silver tongues

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Cinematic mythmaking is not funny when it detracts from safety

Aviation and the movies were two transformative technologies of the 20th century. Yet they have long had an awkward, unproductive relationship. The evidence for this is that there are few, if any, masterful films about flying, and many risible ones.

A list of the greats might include The Right Stuff (1983), but even here the imperatives of keeping the script snappy slice out much of the attention to detail safe flight depends on. Test pilots do not attempt altitude records on a whim, for example. (Surviving ones don’t, at any rate.)

The list of stinkers is long, and, to be fair, amusing, particularly if your idea of amusement is bitter laughter and having your ideas about the stupidity of the mob confirmed. They include the Airport series of 1970s disaster films, The High and the Mighty (1954), an unintentionally hilarious study of pre-CRM flight decks, complete with face-slapping; Flightplan (2005), which attracted the ire of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants; and the high point of the genre, Snakes on a Plane (2006).

‘So what?’ you might say. Pilots, engineers, controllers, cabin crew and managers go to the pictures for the same reason as everyone else; to be entertained, not to see their profession mirrored in excruciating detail. The problem is myth. Hollywood deals in myth, but aviation can’t afford to because myths get in the way of safety. The myth of the all-knowing, steely-eyed, square-jawed aviator is undoubtedly appealing, but was arguably also the source of so many avoidable accidents that aviation developed crew resource management in response, to puncture it.

Sully, the dramatisation of US Airways flight 1549, currently screening in Australia, is a textbook example of this hazard. And in aviation safety management terms it does create a hazard. When real life events become scripts it’s inevitable, and mostly harmless, that composite characters are created, timelines telescoped and side issues removed. If not the story would be too unwieldy. But Sully commits a graver sin. By presenting the US National Transportation Safety Board as small-minded bureaucrats, it delegitimises their work. This is serious because the NTSB has no power to enforce its findings, relying instead on its reputation as an independent inquirer. Any damage to that reputation is a blow against safety. By portraying investigators as bloody-minded buffoons—when the public record of the investigation shows nothing of the sort—the movie is also a swipe at the concept of safety reporting and just culture.

While most readers of this story would understand the distinction between reality and fiction, many non-flying audience members won’t, in the same way laypeople watching Flight (2012) might walk away thinking that secret and obsessive drinking is the mark of a master pilot, and that you speed up to penetrate a storm cell. In the slickly filmed and from a cinematic point-of-view, highly competent Flight, these howlers were perhaps forgivable. They are less so in a script that takes aim at one of the fundamentals of aviation safety.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting piece. I wouldn’t put ‘Snakes on a Plane’ in the same category as ‘Flight’ and ‘Sully’ because it’s joyously trashy and cartoonishly implausible – it’s not trying to be a serious drama, or worse, a true story (both those two are complete Oscar-bait). I’m disappointed you didn’t mention ‘Flying High/Airplane!’.

    I haven’t seen Sully, but I’m guessing in order to heighten the drama the screenwriters needed an antagonist for a story which only has heroes, so the NTSB got painted with that brush.

    On a Tom Hanks parallel, I loved ‘Apollo 13’, but as one who works in public relations, it bugs me that the writers made the NASA PR flack a smarmy creep with possible psychopathic tendencies. There was no real reason for this character to be that way other than (like Sully) the film needed some antagonists in a story which has no actual villain. [Yes, obviously, there’s no safety implications from portraying PR professionals as terrible people; I’m just drawing a parallel in moviemaking!]

  2. Just saw Sully and couldn’t agree more. It was shocking to see the NTSB portrayed as they were. I especially felt for the lead investigator who is probably a lovely bloke in real life jwho just did his due diligence as per his job description.

    The article above neglects to mention the positive safety benefits of the film. As far as movies go this was by far one of the most accurate portrayal of what pilots actually do. I would argue the simulator scenes were actually real pilots, not actors (probably cheaper to hire!). There were some great quotes such as “a delay is better than a disaster”, some education around intuitive decision making, even some excellent examples of how passengers should behave during an emergency evacuation! Plus the film highlights a dumbed down version of the relevance of human factors and even touched on PTS affecting our hero. Gasp! You could say Hollywood has come a long way!

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