The Gospel According to Sully: The Human Factor

When I saw the movie, Sully, a year ago, I knew the ending without knowing the ending.

Sully tells the true story of an emergency plane landing on the Hudson River, after a collision with birds jeopardized the aircraft. When the remarkable landing occurred in 2009, Pilot Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger and Co-Pilot Jeff Skiles became overnight heroes for their quick thinking and acting that saved all lives on the plane.

So, why would Clint Eastwood choose to make a movie about an event that everyone living in the United States in 2009 with access to the news would know the ending?

And why would Tom Hanks agree to play the living hero who is still so recognizable?

Over the past fifteen years, the movies that the now 87-year-old Eastwood has directed have shimmered with stories of real people and redemption. From Mystic River to American Sniper to my personal favorite, Gran Torino, he introduces us to complex people who surprise us. One of the reasons that Tom Hanks is such a well-respected actor is likely because he seems to respect the complex characters he chooses to play.

Many of us probably thought we knew a lot about Captain Sullenberger and the "Miracle on the Hudson" from what we saw on the news. But Sully is not a biography of the pilots or a factual account of what happened after the birds hit the engine. The movie is as much about us, the real, complex people watching, as it is about the story.

Much of the film follows the required investigation Sully faces after the landing. A committee must review every decision and move made by the pilot and co-pilot in the hours and minutes leading up to the landing. Experts developed simulated accounts of what Sully and Skiles could have done differently. They questioned if a less risky option than landing on the Hudson were possible.

In one of his appearances before the review committee, Sully says, "We've all heard about the computer simulations, and now we are watching actual sims, but I can't quite believe you still have not taken into account the human factor."

Sully reminds them, and all of us, that in our high-tech world, we must not forget the power of live human beings making decisions. No computer model or hind-sight evaluation can adequately measure the emotions and expectations brought to Sully's split-second decisions. In the end, and since we know the ending there's no need for a spoiler alert, we encounter the reality that we all need this human factor to survive--and to thrive.

37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’
38 This is the greatest and first commandment.
39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
— Matthew 22:37-40

In the gospel text for this Sunday, Jesus provides us with the classic, well-known answer to a sneaky, wannabe-theologian's question. Love God, and love each other. They are simple but difficult--because sometimes we forget the human factor.

We forget that the Facebook friend with opposite political views from our own is our neighbor.

We forget that the Twitter follower we criticize for a different theological perspective is our neighbor.

We forget that the individuals we group together as a collective based on ethnicity and skin color are our individual neighbors.

In an increasingly computerized world, we forget that behind every profile picture and tweet and news flash are human beings created by God who need and deserve love. Sully calls us all to look in the mirror not to judge each other's actions but to ask ourselves how we are responding to the human factor. How are we working to save each other from life's crashes? 

Captains Sullenberger and Skiles had to look in the mirror and reflect upon their actions. We as the body of Christ are called to do the same on a regular basis. As we do so, let us look for love of God and love of neighbor in our words and actions. Let us help each other land safely as we soar on wings like eagles.

all good things to each of you,

Pastor Darian