9/11, TV, and Cantor Fitzgerald
“I said, ‘Really, how could this thing get worse?’” On September 11, Greg Hoffman lost his twin brother Steve. “Then,” he goes on in the documentary Out of the Clear Blue Sky, “Time was like this, like that second thing, click-click-click. I could hear it in my ear and I’m watching.” He was watching TV, like so many people that day. He was trying to find order in the confusion, not imagining yet how “this thing” would get incredibly worse.
Television’s role in this process—its representation of and participation in “this thing”—is s key aspect of Danielle Gardner’s complex, compelling gdocumentary. As Out of the Clear Blue Sky recounts the trauma from a particular set of perspectives—that of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond trading firm located on the top five floors of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, the firm that lost 658 people, over two thirds of its workforce—it reveals how TV turned out to be a source of both order and confusion.
This because reports were uncertain and wrong, as images were chaotic and “like a movie,” as people and, eventually, hopes were lost, utterly. Opening at DocuWeeks on 10 August in New York and 17 August in LA, the movie at first seems a familiar, if inevitably distressing, series of interviews with survivors and family members. “The first thing I did was count,” says Jean Colaio, “whose two brothers worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, “Because I knew what floor they were on,” that is the 102nd. Holli Silver, whose husband was on the 103rd floor, remained glued to the TV, “He’s gonna come out,” she remembers thinking, “I’m gonna see him with ashes all over, but he’s gonna survive, he’ll be out there.” A wife starts cleaning a room downstairs, preparing for her husband’s return, specifically, his imagined inability to go upstairs to the bedroom to rest (here the film shows a reenacted cleaning effort, hands scrubbing in close-up, one of several similarly abstract, vaguely arty reenactments).
Other interviewees remember the day differently, not from what they saw on TV, but what they saw on site. Equity sales trader Dave Kravette had just ridden the elevator down from his 105th floor office to meet with clients when the first plane hit. He says, “I had to modify my story, you know, tell a white lie so they wouldn’t get that glimmer of hope in their eyes. You see it every time: ‘You were upstairs, maybe somebody did make it.’” Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick and his driver Jimmy Maio arrived after the fist plane hit: they followed fire trucks to the WTC from Lutnick’s son’s kindergarten. When the South Tower collapsed, they were on the ground, enveloped in blackness. It was “not quiet, but absolute silence,” says Maio, “This sort of the particular matter in the air, it absorbs the sound or something, because I thought I was deaf.” As he speaks, his hands move, as if he’s still feeling his way through the matter.
At the same time, Lutnick and his team have other problems. They come up with the idea that keeping the company alive is the best way to help the Cantor Fitzgerald extended family, employees’ spouses and children and siblings? At first, their efforts seem wholly noble: the company manages to open on Thursday, 9/13, earning praise even from competitors, who thought it would have to close down.
And then something else: Lutnick begins to appear on TV in the days and weeks following, crying during interviews, soliciting sympathy and also donations to a relief fund. The crying, which goes on more than once, moves Peter Jennings to observe Lutnick is “a personality, a personality this country will not forget, period.” Edie Lutnick, Howard’s sister, adds, “He became the face of this tragedy. This was a faceless corporate tragedy and he made it human and it now had a face.” But even as he pledged to support the families, Lutnick couldn’t anticipate the trouble to come, the difficulties of keeping Cantor Fitzgerald afloat, as well as the emotional and legal consequences of making such promises.
These consequences come quickly: he’s criticized by the families, he’s called a fraud (by Bill O’Reilly, among others), and he’s repeatedly hard to watch. On TV and in the film, Lutnick appears at once too earnest and too self-conscious, the sort of aggressive personality who would get all this hard work done, but discomforting too, perhaps hyper-performative, perhaps just too raw. Lutnick’s complications make Out of the Clear Blue Sky more nuanced than a typical homage to courage and resolve. Revealing how such survival demands extraordinary capacities and qualities, not always admirable and not always easy, the movie pays tribute to all who survive, still.