In the Unlikely Event of a Water Landing

Why Captain Sully is an aviator for our times.

Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III

His clear eyes seem to shine with the same serious blue as his uniform. His smile seems all the more genuine for projecting cordiality rather than keenness to please. His nonfashionable moustache seems grown just to prove how diligently he can groom it. That his ears stick out a bit lends him an aspect of country-boy affectlessness that contrasts nicely with the nattiness of his street clothes. Last Tuesday night, standing needle-straight on the red carpet before a screening of Brace for Impact (TLC, Sunday at 9 p.m. ET), Chesley B. Sullenberger matched a suit boasting subtly adventuresome pinstripes with a jaunty blue-on-blue paisley tie. Sullenberger—further known to his admirers, meaning all sane people, as Capt. Sully—certainly looks the part of an aviator ascended to superstardom. TLC, perhaps starting to atone for unleashing Jon and Kate Gosselin on checkout counters nationwide, presents this trim documentary and restrained hagiography one year after Sullenberger made himself a hero in ditching an Airbus A320 into the Hudson River. As everyone knows, both of the plane’s engines lost thrust after encountering a flock of Canada geese, a breed not even good for foie gras. As everyone knows, all 155 souls on board survived on account of the pilot’s perfect work. As everyone knows, everyone knows this tale, which makes it all the more impressive that the producers manage to generate suspense in retelling it. It does not hurt that narrator Harrison Ford is at his least hazy and most commanding. I suspect that Ford earned the gig on his strengths as a devoted pilot who has effected mountain rescues with own helicopter and who also once made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. In Brace for Impact, Ford is further meant to summon memories of James Marshall, the commander-in-chief controlling Air Force One for director Wolfgang Petersen. Identifying Capt. Sully with President Solo, the documentary gives us an unsentimental action hero, an authority figure without anything authoritarian about him. The show begins by cutting among scenes of a relaxed Sullenberger sitting in an airliner’s cockpit with a meticulous dimple in his tie, footage of him retracing the famous flight path into the drink, and crisp CGI reconstructions starring the plane and the steep green George Washington Bridge. The score swells and settles at a pace that works the audience over very nicely, thank you, as do the segments wherein a small handful of passengers recount the five-minute flight from their perspectives: Away with their Grishams and their Tipping Point s, up with pleas for forgiveness for uncountable sins. How effective are these interviews? Watching a backyard-barbecue reunion of six longtime friends who survived the flight, I set aside my instinctive fear and loathing of packs of guys wearing Red Sox gear. I even got choked up watching them together around the grill, peeling off single slices of Stop & Shop cheese—Provolone, if I’m not mistaken. Brace for Impact falters occasionally after the plane hits the river. The recounting of the crew’s role in the evacuation is skimpy, and there is no suggestion of how the emergency landing affected passengers in the negative. Inspiring though it is to learn about a woman who ditched her meaningless career to take up the work of the Red Cross, the documentary cheats in ignoring the reality of post-traumatic stress disorder. An air-traffic controller sounds the only note of lingering emotional distress: “I had a plane crash on my frequency. Y’know, that was hard to deal with.” Sully, presented as an extraordinary human, is implied to have ordinary human emotions—he holds hands with his hot wife and all that—but there is not the slightest suggestion that he, like, gets emotional at any point. He comes closest when remembering that the flight attendants followed his lead in telling the passenger to brace themselves. “It comforts me to know that they’re on the same page” is what he says he thought—and that is indeed closer to a thought than a feeling.

Sullenberger’s cool and dispassion have everything to do with his heroism—meaning both the fact of his superb performance and the popular fantasy about him. There’s a nice moment where—walking with his wife on a dirt path, their happy Lab off the leash and loping ahead—she wonders why this happened to them. He, gently scorning fatalistic claptrap, replies, “Because I was on the flight that day, and that’s the only reason.” Ah, reason. Sullenberger is a fine reminder that what tripped up Icarus was not plain hubris but rather irrational exuberance. In his detachment, Sully gets onboard with the oft-repeated idea that, like Barack Obama, he was in the right place at the right time to be received so warmly by so many. He believes that his fame has to do with America’s hunger for a “narrative of change.” So it goes for many fabled heroes of these spacious skies. Here is A. Scott Berg writing in 1998 about the spirits of St. Louis and America in 1927: “That very day the press carried a story about oilman Harry Sinclair’s jail sentence for his role in the Teapot Dome scandal and another about an anarchistic maniac who dynamited a school, killing forty-two children. Charles Augustus Lindbergh seemed the perfect antidote to toxic times.”