Joining Sullly on the Bench

I am publishing this blog along with another one that I wrote a few weeks ago called “The Revolution has been Incorporated.” I had held back on printing The Revolution because it seemed to smack of the cynicism that I had begun this blog to counteract. Then I saw Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully and I knew how to finish the piece.

 Sully is about the January 2009 “Miracle on the Hudson” when pilot, Chesley Sullenberger, made an emergency water landing of an Airbus 320 with 155 persons on board–after losing both engines because of a collision with a flock of Canada geese. The plot is centered on the investigation of the incident by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) and the possibility that the investigation could find “pilot error” because Sully had failed to safely land the plane at an airport. NTSB computers digesting the flight data initially determined that Sully could have safely returned the plane to LaGuardia rather than gliding into the frigid water of the Hudson.

The tension of the plot is similar to any courtroom drama and it plays with many perspectives. Was Sully a hero or a fool? Were the investigating officials good cops or bad cops?

In order to make the film into the triumph that Eastwood delivers, the procedures of the NTSB over a period of 18 months were scrunched into a few scenes and the investigators were made to look like menacing villains. The real-life protagonist Sullenberger, who had some control over the production, insisted that the names of the NTSB officials be changed because the portrayal was inaccurate. Sully felt that the investigators were not his adversaries and that they, like he, were just doing their jobs. Proud of his own competence, he remained respectful of their devotion to their duty. In real life, there was mutual respect throughout the investigation.

Disrespect is the very sin that Eastwood uses to turn the audience against the proceedings of the NTSB. The members of the panel, especially the female expert, come across as hostile, an attitude that the New York Times review said is not apparent from the transcripts of the actual hearings. But Clint Eastwood has often thrilled us with a lone hero against the mob. His famous character Dirty Harry squares off against a roomful of robbers and challenges the survivor with his oft-quoted “Make my day.”

Since many of us are feeling insignificant in the eyes of a powerful ruling elite, Eastwood’s Sully as played by Tom Hanks is exactly the champion we need: competent, humble and . . . right. We are too frequently up against bullies who not only lack tact but also flaunt their authority even when they are wrong. Cops and lawyers can be rude and intrusive. Partly it is because both cops and lawyers need to be more penetrating and demanding than the rules of ordinary courtesy would allow. Truth may elude us unless we chase it hard. But it is cynical to assume that a person is lying – and it has been turning out badly when a cop presumes a person is a criminal or a lawyer thinks a witness is stupid.

The perspective that I call “cynical distance” is not available to guys like Sully, one of the players on the field, or to his copilot who sits on the bench next in line and equally at risk. Cynical distance, like clinical distance, is a step back in order to assemble new data, seeing what patterns are emerging. But cynical commentators already think they know what is happening, so they jump in ahead of more objective processes. A cynic is quick to see a pattern that is repetitious, a motive that is greedy, a social movement that is duped by its leaders. From the cynical commentator’s perch, the erstwhile performances of actors, athletes, players, and politicians are doomed to inevitable failure. Commentators who have themselves played the game are more likely to maintain hope. Truly intelligent observers will notice life-affirming opportunities and extraordinary human abilities.

Clint Eastwood’s movie showed me that true heroism comes from staying in the game and giving it our best shots. Sully was working with a well-designed aircraft and a well-trained crew. He could only hope that his own competence was sufficient, that he was prepared to take on the novel and unexpected. That is the “human factor” that served him.

So how did the experience of this movie allow me to finish and publish the Our Revolution piece? It was the cynic in me who noticed that Our Revolution as a corporation is going to be very different from the grass-roots political movement that sprang up around Bernie Sanders. My inner cynic predicted that this hierarchical arrangement would disappoint the folks who really expected change. But after meeting Sully, I decided to look more respectfully at the American people, to trust in their competence, to wait until the young corporation called Our Revolution announces its mission and undertakes to serve us all. To whine that a corporation concentrates power at the top is like complaining that human beings think too much. Is the choice to quit thinking? It is not pre-ordained that Our Revolution will fail.

As much as Our Revolution might like to dig in to fix the political system, however, the most important work it has before it is to develop an organizational structure that utilizes the young talent it has attracted by becoming a lithe, living organism, an empowered network of people linked together by values different from the usual corporate greed. Greed needs to be replaced by our united vision of saving our single shared home planet.

At the end of Sully, one of the NTSB panelists remarks that he had heard many cockpit voice recordings before but it was the first time that he had listened to one with the pilot and copilot alive and sharing in the experience. To Sully, his own was only one of 155 lives that continued past that February 2009 morning. But every one of those people survived because a captain took control of a hierarchical system that he knew and understood.   We cannot discredit corporations simply because they have made poor decisions . . . we must hope that the human organizations we have inherited can become lithe, responsive and able to carry us to safety.

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