THE MARTIAN was shut out from an Oscar this year, but there may be some consolation in the fact that movie-goers mostly have praised the film. Hollywood has recognized for ages the emotional payoff that audiences experience by witnessing people overcome great challenges under immense pressure. Such storylines appeal to our desires for heroics and the against-all-odds endeavor to achieve the seemingly impossible. Yet the merits of The Martian extend beyond such superficial observations. The real success in the film’s narrative is how accurately it portrays the genuine way in which people tackle enormous obstacles under crisis: in bite-sized chunks and with the help of others.
The protagonist of the film, Captain Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, could not have lived long on the Red Planet’s toxic landscape without his extensive training and knowledge, but nor could he have survived without his ability to enact creativity, flexibility, and improvisation. At the film’s closing, the audience is instructed that, when faced with what appears to be an insurmountable crisis, “You just begin….You solve one problem and you solve the next problem, and then the next.”
Findings from decades of research on disaster events, as well as those from our own studies, tell us that Mark Watney had it right. Even, perhaps especially, the most catastrophic events are best contended with by people drawing on their own areas of expertise. They are most receptive to the novel participation and ideas of others, and to incrementally solving smaller problems, one at a time.
Almost 15 years ago on September 11, 2001, for example, hundreds of mariners converged to Manhattan’s waterfront to perform a Dunkirk-like boatlift of approximately 500,000 people. A flotilla of ferries, dinner cruise vessels, and tugs achieved this remarkable task despite having no specific plans in place. James Kendra and I were fortunate enough to speak with 100 people involved in various aspects of this response. From captains to crew members, from those who were on the water to those on the shoreline, from those dispatching boats to those dispatching buses, our interviews with these participants took place in offices, on boats, in restaurants, and on piers.
These conversations revealed that while the Coast Guard and harbor pilots certainly coordinated with this emergent effort, most of the actions on the water and shoreline were decentralized—individuals simply doing what The Martian espoused: just beginning and solving one problem after the other. Indeed, “We did what we had to do” was repeated many times by those we interviewed. Be it welders cutting down fences to better allow embarkation, or crew on a restored fireboat using coke bottles to divert water into hoses, people improvised repeatedly.
And they broke rules, as did the characters in The Martian. Our real-life characters broke rules in areas where they had expertise. But they preserved the underlying purpose of the rules, and they deliberated with other people before breaking the rules. This is quite different from the normalization of deviance, as described in Diane Vaughn’s study (1996) of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, John Banja’s study of healthcare (2010), and Lucien Canton’s critique of ignoring the rules during a crisis. In the film, broken rules without an intense knowledge of them, considerable expertise in and respect for practice and science, repeated consultation, and a shared vision of having all crew members return home safely, would have resulted in Watney’s certain death, as well as the death of his crewmates. On 9/11 the mariners’ deep understanding of the rules, specialized knowledge, shared value of safety, and careful consideration were instrumental in this operation’s success.
Unlike most films in the disaster genre, solving the dual disastrous dilemmas of surviving alone on Mars and mounting a rescue mission to save the astronaut did not come down to a lone individual saving the day. What was accomplished was achieved only because many people contributed their ideas, their talent, their labor, their equipment, and their resources. Watney was proactive, but often his attempts hinged upon someone, somewhere, literally on a distant planet, looking at the same information and coming to the same conclusion as his. Again, such occurrences are not limited to the silver screen. During the boat evacuation on September 11, mariners across the harbor saw similar information—be it on television or from the water—and made sense of it to the same conclusion: that the help of boats would be needed. This was even before the Coast Guard officially issued a call for assistance.
Officials often talk about trying to understand the big picture. In more routine emergencies, such a conception might fit, but this objective is impossible in large complex events. Still, people start working on their own part of the picture, having faith that someone elsewhere is doing the same, until the pieces of the puzzle start to fit. That’s how it worked for Watney on Mars, the Hermes crew en route home, and the various NASA engineers and international collaborators. That’s how it worked for the mariners and shoreline volunteers in the vicinity of Ground Zero. And that’s how it works in many of the effective large-scale disaster responses.
We sometimes forget the value of improvisation done with expertise, vigilance, and the desire to achieve a shared vision
As a nation we have moved toward an increasingly tightly controlled disaster-management environment. We sometimes forget the value of improvisation done with expertise, vigilance, and the desire to achieve a shared vision. The character Mark Watney, star man or intergalactic pirate that he was, succeeded because he was part of a larger group of people learning under conditions of extreme stress, availing themselves to new ideas, forming new relationships, suspending existing procedures, and developing new ones. The mariners on 9/11 succeeded because their community shared such similar features. On Mars, in Manhattan, or elsewhere when disaster strikes, successful responses frequently involve ordinary people achieving the extraordinary, solving one problem at a time.
Banja, J. 2010. "The Normalization of Deviance in Healthcare Delivery" Business Horizons, 53(2), 139. (Accessed on March 1, 2016) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2821100/
Canton, L.E. 2016. "Ignoring the Rules Can Increase You Risk: Letting the Rules Slip a Little Can Have Unexpected Consequences in a Crisis" Emergency Management January 27. (Accessed on March 1, 2016) http://www.emergencymgmt.com/emergency-blogs/managing-crisis/fema-releases-the-national-planning-system-so-what.html
Vaughn, D. 1997. The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL
Tricia Wachtendorf is a professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware. She is the co-director of the Disaster Research Center and author of American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11.