Is it possible that Sept. 11 is still so close that pop culture can't yet make sense of it? Perhaps. Many artists (and some critics of the arts) sprinted toward the exit marked Escapism. A few declared that, out of respect, they would say nothing; the insincere ones implied that anyone who dared to say anything was being disrespectful, or at least presumptuous. A toxic few actually had the gall to say, in effect, "I knew this would happen. That's what people get for not listening to me."
American entertainment's earliest attempts to confront that day were rare, arbitrary and almost entirely emotional, as impulsive reactions usually are.
Based on Anne Nelson's play, the new film The Guys is already a time capsule, memorializing a time of rage, sorrow and numbness that was felt throughout the world, but most acutely in New York, the DC area and Pennsylvania. Watching massive aerial bombardments and machine gun battles unfold on television in real time conjures different feelings, nearly as unnerving but perhaps less sharp because the events are occurring someplace else.
The time is the immediate aftermath of 9/11; the setting is New York. The heroine is Joan (Sigourney Weaver), a journalist who, like so many Americans, wanted to do something to assist during the catastrophe but had no idea where to begin. She gets her chance when a fire captain named Nick (Anthony LaPaglia) asks her for help in eulogizing men from his unit who were killed at Ground Zero.
Nick knows what he feels, but doesn't have the words to express his feelings?or so he thinks. In a series of quiet, increasingly intense conversations, Nick talks about his slain comrades and remembers their quirks and catchphrases, their hobbies and irritating habits and their numerous instances of responsibility, even heroism. Joan then puts his words into a coherent shape while preserving Nick's voice. This is a key aspect of both writing and editing, and in a sense, The Guys can be seen as an exploration of the creative process, particularly as it relates to journalism. She's like a sketch artist, using Nick's own words to paint a picture of long-gone men. The Guys knows that writing often isn't a spontaneous creative process, but a systematic, even methodical ordering of ideas that are already out there in the world, only a handful of which are unique to the writer. Joan isn't just taking "raw material" and shaping it into something functional and elegant, though that's certainly part of the task. Without even consciously realizing it, she's helping Nick discover that he, too, is a writer, or at least a storyteller, and that storytelling is the means by which we understand our world and learn to control our emotions when it wounds us for no good reason.
It probably seems odd to spend so much of a review of a 9/11 drama discussing the writing process, but there's a reason why I'm doing it. The Guys is a good but not great movie, one that will be remembered not for its summation of New Yorkers' feelings about 9/11, but for its stripped-down, easily graspable, very true ideas about the creative process. In a sense, Nelson has written a drama about the necessity of storytelling.
She's a careful, unsentimental writer; I kept waiting for the movie to turn into a Lifetime project, but it never did. There's a potentially icky moment early on where Nick talks about dancing, then asks Joan to dance, but the moment is quickly revealed as a cliche fantasy by Joan; it's a smart moment that tells the audience, "Relax, we're all grownups here." Aside from a few brief montages of Joan going about her life in New York City after 9/11, musing on the need to reach out and the difficulty of accepting so much death, the filmmakers keep the camera in or near Joan's apartment. There is no 9/11 news footage, only surveillance camera footage of Nick's ladder company leaving the garage intact for the last time. Half the film unfolds in Joan's living room, where Nick sits for his interviews. Simpson and his crew do everything the simple way: they pick a nicely composed shot and frame an actor within it, then hang back and let the actor do his or her thing.
Both lead performances are superb. Weaver, who originated Joan's part on the stage, is the ideal actor for this part. Joan is white, middle-aged and upper-middle class, but being an intelligent journalist, she is aware that her own life experiences alter her perception of the world, and she's given some thought to exactly how that phenomenon manifests itself. Joan's self-awareness isn't relentless, and it never gets anywhere near mawkish. She's just a smart woman who thinks either too much, or not enough.
Over the decades, Weaver's transparent emotions, sly grin and Ivy League elegance have rescued a lot of dumb material; applied to good material, it has a transformative effect, making Joan seem at once distinctive and universal. LaPaglia matches and in some cases exceeds her efforts. By turns tender, sad, angry, bemused and shell-shocked, the role of Nick is catnip to a ham actor. LaPaglia's no ham, at least not in this movie. Like his performance on CBS' Without a Trace, his work in The Guys is precise, tough, honest and humane. Everyone knows somebody like Nick, and by working together, LaPaglia and his collaborators pull off a small miracle: they capture a type of American man without making him into a type.
The Guys Directed by Jim Simpson
In my oscar column last week, I failed to point out that Adrien Brody, despite his considerable charm, should not have impulsively kissed Halle Berry onstage, and that it was piggish to do so. I wish I'd noted this in the column, which was written immediately after the telecast; that I chalked up the smooch to Brody's shock at winning was some form of piggish denial on my part. My friend Jami Bernard, movie critic of the New York Daily News, was bugged by Brody's presumption, and she was right to be bugged. Men treat women as prizes all the time; it's an old tradition that should have died out, but hasn't. In retrospect, the headline, "Adrien Brody for President," might have been right in the worst way.