“At crucial moments of choice, most of the business of choosing is already over.”
So argued Iris Murdoch, moral philosopher at Oxford University, and in a thousand ways we know it to be true. Parents understand this, spouses understand this, neighbors understand this, citizens understand this, athletes understand this— because it is true for everyone everywhere.
In an earlier century, Charles Dickens put it this way, “Trifles make the sum of life.” In his great novel David Copperfield, the story of a boy becoming a man, of a man beginning to understand the meaning of life and his life, the young David muses over the frailty of young love as his darling wife dies too soon, concluding that it is the small things, the very ordinary choices of everyday life that form a life.
I thought of all this and more watching “Sully” last night. Not sure that I wanted to see it, as one young man whom I respect said it was “cheesy” at points, I still went, hoping for more— and I was not disappointed. In a time in history when our stories are more anti-hero and super-hero, neither being people we want to be or can be, it is rare to see a true hero on screen, cinematically portrayed as a human being worthy of our honor. But that is this story. After the film ended and the credits began to roll, the theater we were in broke out in spontaneous applause. Not for Clint Eastwood the director, or Tom Hanks the actor, but for Sully Sullenberger and his crew who brought about the miracle on the Hudson.
For anyone who might not know, the film is the story of a USAir flight from New York City to Charlotte, North Carolina, that within minutes of take-off met a flock of geese at 2800 feet, which were sucked into the jet engines, disabling them completely. With no power left, Captain Sullenberger had moments to make the choices which eventually brought the plane down on the Hudson River.
And everyone lived.
I confess that I had tears, and they didn’t seem cheesy to me. Something wonderful happened, and more often than not, that is not true. We are too used to other stories, of horrors that happen, of planes that crash— even of plans that crash in New York City. This is not that story.
About those few moments when life and death were swiftly passing before him, Sullenberger said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.” For this alone, a rich exploration of character and the choices that make us us, “Sully” is worth the price of the film.
There is more to the film, but maybe for another day. For example, Michael Polanyi came to mind all through the story. In its own way “Sully” implicitly critiques the Enlightenment Project, the paradigm that has formed the modern world with its pitting of “science” over “feeling.” Threaded through the movie is Sullenberger’s insistence on a more human way to know, one that is neither “objective” nor “subjective” but in the end is more truthful. Given that I have spent most of my life thinking about the Enlightenment, and its flawed and false promises– learning from Polanyi that “the viewer is always viewing” –that intrigued me. More could be said.
So, how was it to have Murdoch, Dickens and Polanyi sitting beside me at the Cinema Arts Theater? While it may seem strange to imagine them there, they were because they had to be. Their understanding of who we are and how we live reflects a deeper wisdom, true for Everyman and Everywoman. And because this is a film about an ordinary man making ordinary choices over the years of his ordinary life, its vision of heroism is accessible to all of us.
At its heart “Sully” is the story of a good man who spent his life making good choices, forming habits of heart that saved him and the 155 passengers and crew— at the most crucial moment of choice.