On Sully and September 11

You can't watch Sullywithout thinking about September 11. Not just because Clint Eastwood's film was released the weekend of the 15th anniversary of 9/11/01, and not just because it is a film about a plane crash in New York City (including dream sequences of planes crashing into skyscrapers). Sully brings to mind 9/11 mostly in its somberly humane celebration of people united by both survival and heroism in the midst of trauma.

In some ways Sully reminded me of Paul Greengrass' United 93(2006), still the best film about 9/11 and one of the best films of the last decade, period. Like SullyUnited 93 is a film about strangers on a plane who find themselves fatefully thrust into a mid-flight disaster. Both films are about quick thinking amidst life-or-death circumstances; the drama of the courage humans can muster when faced with probable death. Though the outcomes of United 93 and U.S. Air 1549 were tragically different, the film versions of both showcase the same sort of unity and heroism under incredible pressure.

One of the heroes of United 93 was Todd Beamer, the young father who famously said "Let's roll" to his fellow passengers as they launched their attempt to take back the plane from the terrorists. Beamer graduated from Wheaton College in 1991, and a student center there is now named for him. (Sidenote: a 1987 Wheaton grad, Todd Komarnicki, wrote the screenplay for Sully).

I was in the first weeks of my freshman year at Wheaton on 9/11/01, and my memories of that day are still so clear. I was at breakfast in Anderson Commons (ironically in the building that would one day be named after Beamer) when I first heard people talking about a plane hitting a building. I rushed back to my dorm room and turned on the TV, adjusting the rabbit ears to get a clear news channel. Later in the morning I was at work in the archival basement of the Wade Center, listening to events unfold on the radio. I couldn't believe and certainly couldn't picture what was happening when I heard the radio announcer give a live account of the World Trade Center collapsing. The rest of the day was a blur: gathering in Edman Chapel with the shellshocked campus for an impromptu chapel service; watching President Bush address the nation on the TV in the Traber/Smith lobby that night.

It wasn't long before the news reached Wheaton that a few of our alumni had died in the attacks, including Todd Beamer. His "let's roll" heroism was widely covered in the media and became an instant part of 9/11 lore. A memorial service was held for Beamer at Wheaton a few weeks later, and luminaries from Washington attended. President Bush even sent a message for the occasion.

I thought of Todd Beamer as I watched Sully this weekend,and I also thought of President Bush. I had just read Politico's excellent oral history of the president and Air Force One on 9/11/01, a harrowing account that underscores the critical, life-and-death decisions that had to be made (literally) on the fly that day. Beamer, Sully, Bush: three men on three planes at three pivotal moments.

Heroism is a complex thing, often contingent on a matter of seconds or the flukey circumstance of being in the right place at the right time. Would Todd Beamer be any less heroic had those words ("Let's roll") not have been overheard by a phone dispatcher? Would Sully Sullenberger be any less heroic had he not been in the cockpit of U.S. Air 1549 on January 15, 2009, or if he had landed the plane such that a couple of the 155 passengers had been killed? Should we view George W. Bush's actions on 9/11 as less heroic because of the politics and war that followed in his presidency? To what extent is heroism a construct of the media or fodder for national or cultural narratives?

These are questions that have characterized many of Clint Eastwood's most memorable films, of which Sully is just the latest. Eastwood often probes the inner struggles of heroes and highlights the guilt and burden of wearing such a mantle. Flags of Our Fathers(one of Eastwood's most underrated films) does this by exploring the aftermath for the WWII flag-bearers of the iconic Iwo Jima photograph. Eastwood's American Sniper (2014) explored similar territory by probing the postwar mental health of Chris Kyle. Million Dollar Baby(2004) and Unforgiven(1992) find Eastwood exploring slightly darker shades of moral complexity in the context of heroism.

Sully is more straightforward than many of Eastwood's films; there's little doubt that what Sullenberger did was truly, unmistakable heroic. He also seems to be an upstanding citizen and heroic husband and father to boot. He's more overtly good than Eastwood's typical protagonists. And that's OK. Humble, workaday heroes like Sully exist, and we should celebrate them. But Sully is also not just about Sullenberger. It's about the heroism of the copilot, flight attendants, air traffic controllers, ferry drivers, rescue personnel and passengers who served one another so well that day.

In the midst of a presidential election when the character and decision-point wisdom of the two leading candidates is subject to much hand-wringing and scrutiny, and when the unifying resolve of post-9/11 America seems a far distant memory, Sully is a breath of fresh air. It's a film that reminds us that heroism isn't just for presidents or pilots; it's something that exists every day in the unheralded but absolutely crucial "middle layers of society" (to borrow Yuval Levin's phrase), the layers where everyday folks are making the best decisions they can in the moment, not just for themselves but for the "passengers" whose livelihood in a common household or workplace or community is enmeshed with their own.