Arthur W. Page Society

When the Truth Doesn’t Sell, Just Make It Up

Tom Hanks in the Sully trailer

I just saw the new Clint Eastwood movie, "Sully," about the miracle landing on the Hudson River of US Airways Flight 1549 in January of 2009. It was a very entertaining movie, with a marvelous performance by Tom Hanks, in the title role of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who became an instant hero when he guided the Airbus A320, crippled by a bird strike, to a safe water landing on the frigid river, saving 155 passengers and crew.

As good as the movie was, I found myself troubled by the depiction of the National Transportation Safety Board officials in the movie, who are the closest things to villains in the otherwise upbeat feel-good story. From my 18 years at FedEx—which included an attempted hijacking by an off-duty pilot and a fatal crash of an acquired company's 747 freighter in Malaysia—I had read my fair share of NTSB accident reports. And somehow in the movie the actors playing the NTSB representatives seemed far more adversarial than I remembered them being, even when the outcomes were much less positive.

I did a little digging after seeing the movie and discovered that the NTSB was none too pleased with the way its officials had been portrayed by Eastwood. In fact, they claimed that the facts as presented were downright wrong and gave a highly misleading impression of the agency. I actually took the time to read the transcript of the actual NTSB hearing regarding Flight 1549 and found that Captain Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles were treated quite compassionately during the hearing, and most of the dramatic elements surrounding the investigation of the accident were simply made up. The way the hearing is depicted in the film is hardly recognizable from the actual hearing as it occurred.

What was troubling about this is that the filmmakers went to great lengths to portray other details of the incident with accuracy and precision, down to the details of name badges, the use of actual names of crew members and passengers, and use of the exact cockpit and cabin dialogue as it had occurred. So why then was the NTSB treated so casually? The defense used by Warner Brothers and others involved with the project was that the film was never intended to be a documentary and that dramatic license to create tension in the movie was perfectly justified.

I'm not so sure. To me it speaks to a bigger issue about the way truth is being redefined, by companies, by politicians, by journalists and by artists like Clint Eastwood. While some docudramas, like Oliver Stone's "Snowden," deal with complex issues and characters, "Sully" is about as straightforward as it gets. The facts are all easily attainable and hard to dispute. The fact that Eastwood and Warner Brothers so casually demonized the NTSB, just to make the movie more entertaining, is very disturbing. When one considers the vital role the NTSB plays in maintaining and enhancing the safety of all modes of travel, and the premium the agency places on impartiality, it is even more unsettling.

But in some ways it is par for the course these days. It is becoming harder and harder to discern what really is the truth, which makes it all the more imperative for organizations and their leaders to place a premium on telling the truth and placing the highest premium on authenticity in their decision-making, their relationships with constituents and their day to day actions and behavior.

Filmmakers have every right, and arguably every responsibility, to make entertaining films that will draw appreciative audiences. But that doesn't give them license to distort facts and rearrange the truth to suit their own dramatic requirements, especially in films that are based on actual events and that appear to be representing these events accurately. Nor do politicians have the right to reinvent the truth to attract voters, nor companies to reinvent the truth to mask product deficiencies. "Sully" was a good movie that told the story of a true American hero. It's just a shame that in doing so it had to make villains out of other professionals who do heroic things every day.

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