Why complaints of Hollywood inaccuracies are unlikely to spoil 'Sully'

The NTSB has objected to the film's portrayal of its investigators, but audiences may be more forgiving.

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP/File
Tom Hanks (r.) portrays Capt. Chesley Sullenberger in Clint Eastwood's film 'Sully,' which premieres Friday. Investigators with the National Transportation Security Board complained about the way the movie depicts them.

Aviation officials who investigated the zero-casualty crash landing of a jetliner on the Hudson River in 2009 complain that Clint Eastwood’s film “Sully,” which premieres Friday, unfairly portrays them as cruel and adversarial.

Even if the misrepresentation claims are true, they’re unlikely to spell serious trouble for the film’s prospects at the box office and awards shows – that is, if movie critics, box office predictions, and historical precedent can be trusted.

The movie, which stars Tom Hanks as level-headed and quick-thinking pilot Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, casts investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board as “prosecutorial and closed-minded,” as The New York Times reported.

But the investigators contend their line of questioning, which ultimately resulted in a report affirming Captain Sullenberger’s judgment call, remained respectful, professional, and within standard protocol.

Malcolm Brenner, a retired NTSB specialist who was among the first to interview Sullenberger following the water landing, told Bloomberg he understands why the film would cast his team in a harsh light.

“Any good story has to have a villain,” Mr. Brenner said.

Christian Science Monitor film critic Peter Rainer noted that Sullenberger, as played by Hanks, "seems wounded more by the NTSB investigation than by his memories."

The investigators’ real names had been included in a draft script, but they were removed at Sullenberger’s request, Mr. Hanks told The Associated Press.

When mentioned by movie critics, the complaints seem less significant than the work as a whole. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern dubbed the film “one of the best aviation movies ever made,” while noting certain fictional elements in the script, including an NTSB hearing that inaccurately portrayed investigators as shamelessly hostile.

“I wish the hearing had been as nuanced as the rest of the film, but ‘Sully’ remains an impressive achievement, a portrait of a good man whose heroism lay in having the right stuff and knowing how to use it during a small eternity of looming chaos and unprecedented peril,” Mr. Morgenstern wrote.

Without mentioning the NTSB’s complaint, The Associated Press film writer Jake Coyle noted that Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki drew from Sullenberger’s book and “had to find drama somewhere,” since the entire flight lasted less than six minutes.

During its box office debut this weekend, “Sully” is projected to rake in $22-25 million.

Furthermore, the Academy Awards have been kind in recent memory to quality cinema that, despite falling under historical scrutiny, promotes itself as “based on a true story.”

Last year’s Oscar for best picture went to “Spotlight,” despite a Boston College spokesman claiming it unfairly portrayed him as a villain. In 2013, the honor was bestowed upon “Argo,” despite its exaggerated car chase at the Tehran airport. And recent nominees “Lincoln," “Selma,” “The Big Short,” and “American Sniper” have faced factual inaccuracy charges of their own.

These complaints are as old as the medium itself, according to Joshua Moss, a visiting assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“The question of creative licenses versus historical accuracy dates all the way back to the silent era,” Mr. Moss told UCSB’s The Current, noting that motion pictures in the 1890s were called “actualities,” a term that implied absolute truth.

“The criticism focuses on the inherent tension between historical events and the need for material that will satisfy audience demands established by narrative screen traditions,” Moss added. “The need for three-act structures, happy endings, and a clear protagonist’s journey often reduce complex historical events to fodder for mainstream entertainment.”

In discussing these sometimes-competing demands, journalist Roy Peter Clark wrote in Creative Nonfiction magazine that solid storytelling is both factual and meaningful.

“Stories should not only be true, they should ring true,” Mr. Clark wrote.

Allyn Stewart, one of the “Sully” producers, said the film didn’t try to tell a purely objective account of the so-called Miracle on the Hudson. It sought, rather, to convey the investigators’ scrutiny as experienced by Sullenberger and co-pilot Jeff Skiles.

“It’s not a documentary,” Ms. Stewart told The New York Times. “But at the same time it needs to be an authentic view of what Sully and Jeff experienced, and this is what they faced. This is what they went through.”

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