Just a quick note to say that The Atlantic has a review by Jason Bailey of the new Robert Zemeckis film, “Flight”. Called “The big lie of ‘flight’: Miracles land planes”, it’s a critique—remarkably frank for a widely-circulated magazine—of the idea that endangered planes that land safely are the result of “miracles.”
In case you don’t know who Zemeckis is: here’s part of his Wikipedia entry:
Zemeckis first came to public attention in the 1980s as the director of the comedic time-travel Back to the Future(1985), film series, as well as the Academy Award-winning live-action/animation epic Who Framed Roger Rabbit(1988), though in the 1990s he diversified into more dramatic fare, including 1994′s Forrest Gump, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director.)
It’s the pilots, not God, who lands the plane, and Bailey debunks all the faith-based stuff surrounding Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s skillful landing of the US Air flight on the Hudson river in 2009. Sullenberger himself implicitly attributed his landing to experience, not to God. As Bailey notes:
By casting the remarkable events of that day [Sullenberger's landing] 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.
But in Flight, Zemeckis apparently pulls out all the goddy stops, and heavily infuses a “miraculous” landing with the aura of divine intervention. I haven’t seen the movie, and won’t, but it sounds dire:
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.
Bailey also notes the religious note in Zemeckis early film Contact (which I also haven’t seen, but should):
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.
Well, we all know that it isn’t a miracle when someone is saved, for that implies that those who die also did so by God’s will. Still, it’s refreshing to read stuff like Bailey’s closer in a magazine as popular as The Atlantic:
In that 60 Minutes interview, [Katie] 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.
Indeed. I’d just love it if television, radio, and film people would stop referring to this kind of thing as a “miracle”, and for insurance companies to deep-six the offensive phrase “Act of God.” (Has anybody noticed that the Acts of God for which one isn’t reimbursed are always bad things?)