Sunday, August 28, 2011

Surviving the Aftermath of 9-11: Rebirth

New Yorkers are tough. Since the horrific events of September 11th, the City has weathered blackouts, blizzards, tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. Still, the lingering trauma of 9-11 dwarfs all subsequent travails. Capturing the physical rebuilding of Ground Zero and the emotional healing of five New Yorkers profoundly affected by the tragedy, director and conceiving producer Jim Whittaker shot almost a thousand hours of footage, resulting in perhaps the first documentary with its own non-profit governance structure: Rebirth (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Affectionately called “Captain Manhattan,” FDNY Cap. Terry Hatton was already widely regarded as a fireman’s fireman, even before his heroic death during the collapse of Tower 1. For his best friend and colleague Tim Brown, both grief and survivor’s guilt would debilitate his psyche. Yet, despite his depression, we watch as Brown tries to take affirmative steps to prevent such acts of terror in the future, accepting an appointment to the then newly created Department of Homeland Security and serving as an advisor to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s ill-fated presidential campaign.

Like Brown, Tanya Villanueva Tepper grieves a New York firefighter, her fiancé, but her new life seems to fall so well into place, she starts to feel guilt over her happiness. In contrast, construction worker Brian Lyons has a more difficult recovery process. He also mourns for a FDNY brother, his younger brother, Mike. In addition, his tireless work in the rescue and recovery efforts has left him with persistent health issues and a case of PTSD. Nick Chirls also lost someone close to him: his mother. Unfortunately, a difficult bereavement would lead to an estrangement between Chirls and his father.

Yet, of the five interview subjects, Ling Young is arguably the most compelling. A dutiful state employee at work on the 78th floor at the time of the attack, Young suffered burns so serious, they caused considerable physiological complications. Though her physical healing process remains unresolved, she emerges as the film’s most inspiring figure.

It is hard not to be moved by pain and honesty expressed by Whittaker’s POV figures. However, the time lapse footage of the Ground Zero rebuilding project might ironically prove counterproductive. While it is impressive to see the construction of the transit hub and smaller buildings in fast forward, it is conspicuously obvious the freedom tower has yet to rise triumphantly from the rubble.

To his credit, Whittaker treats his subjects with sensitivity and respect. Still, it seems clear he chose to play it safe at each juncture, glossing past Brown’s reasons for signing on with the Giuliani campaign and including only a brief vent from Chirls directed at moral relativist apologists for the terrorists. Perhaps it is just as well, focusing Rebirth squarely on the personal makes it more immediate and universally relatable, but the gaps still show. After all, what happened in Lower Manhattan was not a random happenstance, but a deliberate act of mass murder motivated by a hateful ideology. Rebirth completely ignores that reality, concentrating solely on the consequences.

In truth, it is a defensible decision, but it requires far more context than that found in Rebirth to fully understand September 11th. Technically, it is also a well crafted production, with important aesthetic contributions coming from composer Philip Glass and cinematographer Tom Lappin, who gives the oral history portions a warm glossy look. (As an aside, viewers should look for Jon Fein & Brian Danitz’s thematically related documentary Objects and Memory, also boasting a Glass score, when it airs on PBS tomorrow). Well intentioned and executed, but clearly determined to avoid controversy, Rebirth opens this Wednesday (8/31) in New York at the IFC Center.