Far from even attempting to portray the catastrophe in cinematic terms, Hollywood producers opted instead to green light an endless stream of escapist features, leaving the harsh reality of the disaster well enough alone. Terrorist-themed thrillers, a staple of the industry for decades, were put on hold or shelved indefinitely.
It fell to the creative forces of Off-Broadway theatre to take on the formidable task of expressing our grief. A mere 12 weeks after the towers came down, Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Flea Theatre, debuted a one-act play that sought to expiate in intimate human terms the pain that thousands of New York families felt. Written by Anne Nelson, “The Guys” had a premise that is simple and direct: a fire captain, unaccustomed to speechwriting, is too consumed with grief to pen the eulogies for five of his men who perished in the collapse of the World Trade Center. He turns to a writer for help and over the course of several emotionally charged encounters they form a bond that transcends their differences of class and gender and helps them both cope with their trauma.
The play premiered with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray in the lead roles and ran for 13 months with an alternating cast that included Tim Robbins, Anthony LaPaglia, Amy Irving and Susan Sarandon. Its intimate nature and powerful message has now been brought to the big screen, losing none of the intimacy that made the stage version so compelling. LaPaglia plays Nick, the fire captain, a genial veteran of the NYFD that takes a fatherly interest in the men under him, and Sigourney Weaver reprised the role she created as Joan, the Upper West Side journalist he approaches for help with the eulogies.
The filmmakers have thankfully resisted Hollywood’s tendencies to fatten up a lean story with redundant romance, news footage of the disaster and flashbacks of the firemen — the dead men are more powerful characters in their absence than if we were to see them in cameo in the days leading up to the their demise. The cataclysmic destruction is implied in oblique shots of debris from the towers, and the only appearance of the missing men on screen is a glimpse on the grainy security camera at the firehouse as they prepare to answer that 911 call from downtown. LaPaglia is never less than compelling as the fire captain, a shy, soft-spoken officer with a fondness for ballroom dancing and an acute discomfort with the writing task thrust upon him by this great tragedy.
There was never any question that Weaver, the director’s wife and a staunch supporter of the play from day one, would play the writer in the film version. Unfortunately she doesn’t do empathy. Her frosty demeanor and iron-jawed determination are better suited to the suburban tensions of Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” and the alien-bashing of Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” and despite two months of familiarity with the role onstage, she doesn’t achieve full defrost on the emotional meltdown that her role demands. But her star cachet generated the interest that got the film made and will guarantee a longer run in cinemas for this moving memorial to the 343 FDNY firefighters who went to work that day and didn’t come home. “The Guys” opens April 4.