The Big Lie of 'Flight': Miracles Land Planes

Robert Zemeckis's film, seemingly inspired by Chesley Sullenberger's emergency Hudson River landing in 2009, gives the credit to the wrong guy.

Paramount Pictures

The first act of the director Robert Zemeckis's new drama Flight culminates with what is already being called the finest and most terrifying plane crash sequence ever committed to film. An engine failure on a full-capacity passenger flight has put the aircraft into an uncontrolled nosedive. The co-pilot (Brian Gereghty) is in a screaming panic, desperately trying to regain control of the plane, but the pilot, Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), keeps it together. He calmly "inverts" the plane (turns it upside down) in order to level it off, then brings it in for a landing in an open field. As the giant jet approaches the grass, he utters three words over the PA: "Brace for impact."

Screenwriter John Gatins swears that he'd been working on the script for years, but in that moment and the narrative that follows, Flight—which made a strong $25.01 million at the box office this past weekend— undeniably rattles with the echoes of US Airways Flight 1548, piloted by Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger. "Brace for impact" were the words that calm and collected Sully spoke to his crew and passengers 90 seconds before their landing in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. After that landing, his act of bravery and grace under pressure made Sully a national hero—similar to the reception that greets Flight's Whip. That's fair; Flight 1548 was a big, involving story, ripe for this kind of loose dramatization. What's unfortunate about Flight is that it also echoes one of the most dishonest elements of that story, a fundamental misreading that's present right there in the TV-ready label applied to the event: "The Miracle on the Hudson."

It was a mantra repeated so often that it became the story, without most of us really thinking about what it meant. That's not surprising—from sports to health to safety, "miracle" is a word tossed around with reckless abandon. But it doesn't just mean good luck or a fortuitous alignment of circumstances. When we talk about miracles, we're talking about the hand of God, divine intervention; we're surrendering our understanding to forces beyond our control, knowledge, or even comprehension. So when we talked about the "Miracle on the Hudson," the subtext was that God himself had reached down to glide Flight 1548 onto the Hudson, ensuring that not a soul was lost in the dive.

By casting the remarkable events of that day into a framework of miracles and "somebody up there looking out for them," we cheapened and minimized the split-second thinking and considerable talents of Captain Sullenberger. "I think, in many ways, as it turned out, my entire life had been a preparation to handle that particular moment," he told Katie Couric on 60 Minutes a month later. Indeed, Sullenberger had 30 years on the job, had been an Air Force fighter pilot, and had trained flight crews in how to respond to emergencies in the air. The passengers and crew of Flight 1548 survived that flight because Sullenberger was their pilot, not because God was his co-pilot.

Yet the hand of God (well, his disciples, anyway) is all over Flight. When Whip brings in his plane for its open-field landing, the wing crashes into the steeple of a nearby church, whose members are performing baptisms in a nearby pond, wouldn't you know it, at that very instant. (It's a laughably unsubtle moment in a movie filled with them.) Shortly before the flight, the chief flight attendant is giving Whip the business for not going to church; as he lays in the hospital recovering, his pilot's union rep (Bruce Greenwood) tells him, "the way you landed that plane was nothing short of a miracle." While in the hospital, Whip shares a secret smoke with a cancer patient, who delivers a faith-floating monologue, assigning the randomness of the universe—everything from his cancer to his impending death to his meeting the pilot at that moment—to the Big Guy Upstairs. The co-pilot's wife, we're told, has informed the press, "God landed that plane."

This isn't the first time Zemeckis has used fuzzy notions of religion to muddy up his storytelling. In his 1996 film Contact, Matthew McConaughey appeared as a hunky theologian, pitching vague spirituality to decidedly secular Jodie Foster and her God-pshawing scientist brethren. Some things just can't be explained, the film assured us. In Flight, the deck is stacked even higher. Whip is a functioning alcoholic and occasional addict, which serves two purposes: 1) to allow Zemeckis to trot out yet one more tale of spiraling addiction and inspiring recovery in the Clean and Sober/28 Days/Smashed mold, and 2) to make his actions in the cockpit that much more, well, miraculous. When he walks onto that jet, he's—spoiler alert—coked to the gills, having given himself a wake-up bump after a night of boozing and sex. To feel a little less pain, he empties three beverage-cart bottles of vodka into his morning orange juice. He's drunk and high when he's at the controls, and if, as he's told, 10 other pilots in simulators couldn't replicate his landing without killing everyone on board, what does that leave us with?

To be fair, Flight acknowledges that Whip is a talented pilot, and that his act may have just been his talent working through—perhaps even being focused by—the substances in his body. "It was more like instinct," he says. But "instinct" also implies that he turned himself over to something: maybe his reflexes, or maybe even a higher power. And if that's not the case, why is all this religious stuff in the picture?

It comes to a head in possibly the film's silliest single scene, which finds Whip visiting his Bible-thumping co-pilot and the man's wife at his hospital bedside. (When Whip says he's happy to be alive, Mrs. Co-Pilot quickly corrects him: "Blessed to be alive.") "Nothing happens by accident in the kingdom of the Lord," the co-pilot thunders, as the wife actually kisses the cross around her neck behind him, a moment of both painful literalism and amateurish upstaging. She then starts proclaiming "Praise Jesus" during her husband's little sermon, a moment that is played for oddly incongruent laughs, since the movie is barely subtler than she is.

In that 60 Minutes interview, Couric asked Sullenberger if he took time, in the three and a half minutes between the bird strike and the landing on the Hudson, to pray. Sullenberger's answer is diplomatic, but pointed: "I would imagine somebody in back was taking care of that for me while I was flying the airplane... My focus at that point was so intensely on the landing, I thought of nothing else." In other words: yeah, I let the other people do the praying—I was busy doing my job.

"I knew I had to solve this problem," Sullenberger explained. "I knew I had to find a way out of this box I found myself in." In a brief, high-pressure situation, this pilot had to call upon all of his skill, all of his training, and all of his experience to save 155 lives. And afterwards, everybody called it a miracle. It wasn't a miracle—it was what the man was equipped to do. But that's the narrative that's stuck from that incident, and that's why it's disappointing that Flight couldn't find a way to correct it. They went to the trouble of making a loose dramatization of one of the most compelling stories of our era, and they went off and dramatized the wrong damn part of it.