World Trade Center, the new film by director Oliver Stone, would—on the surface—seem to be the perfect cinematic subject for a ripe and chewy—and emotionally powerful, post-film conversation. The film, set during and just after the events of September 11, 2001, tells the gripping tale of Port Authority officers Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), two of only twenty real-life survivors to be pulled alive from the rubble of the Twin Towers. It’s the story of regular folks forced by extraordinary circumstances to reach beyond their fears and frailties in order to help total strangers. It also recreates a defining moment in American history, the event that led semi-directly to the spectacularly unsuccessful war currently whimpering and sputtering along in Iraq.
What could be richer fodder for conversation than that?
It doesn’t matter, ultimately, because after weeks of making inquiries, I haven’t found one person who will agree to go out and see World Trade Center. A long string of writers and experts have turned me down, from Dennis Smith, author of the book Report From Ground Zero: the Story of the Rescue Efforts at the World Trade Center to Lee Templeton, my sister-in-law, whose popular McSorley’s Pub Radio (www.onenightatmcsorleys.com) was directly inspired by the events of 9-11. The disinclined all have good reasons, summed up in Lee’s concise reply, “It’s just too soon.” Perhaps the most moving refusal comes from author-playwright-musician Larry Kirwan, the lead-singer and guitarist for the gritty New York-based Irish-rock band Black 47, whose downtown Manhattan pub appearances have always been heavily attended by members of the New York Fire Department, a huge fan-base that was cut in half when the World Trade Center came down.
“I have no interest in the world in seeing that movie,” says the Ireland-born Kirwan, speaking by phone from New York. “It’s been five years, and I thinking the initial shock and hurt of 9-11 has worn off a bit, but there’s still a deep scar underneath the surface, especially if you knew people who died in the World Trade Center, or if you saw it fall with your own eyes. It’s a very personal subject to a lot of people.”
Kirwan’s moving 2005 memoir, Green Suede Shoes, ends just after September 11, a day that has subtly, and not-so-subtly, affected the music of Black 47 ever since. Known for the raw intelligence and wry wit of their songs, Black 47 (who will be visitng the Bay Area this Fall) have always celebrated the actions of un-extraordinary people, working-class folks whose primary act of heroism is getting out of bed and going on with their lives. Their 2004 album, New York Town, is a stirring collection of tracks that subtly tell the story of pre-and-post-9-11 New Yorkers. Presented in a gorgeous series of loosely-un-connected songs, the album tells the story of how New York was transformed that day, and how that change continues to affect the people who live there.
“Moments like 9-11,” he says, “those are both our worst and our finest moments. They show what we human beings can be capable of, those moments when we rise up and do unthinkably heroic things for one another. At those times, we glimpse a view of what we can be like all the rest of the time, instead of just rising to the occasion when there’s a big, terrible tragedy. But tragedies do show us what we are really made of.”
Kirwan lives about a quarter-mile away from the World Trade Center, and he was home—reading about the New York Mets, he recalls—when the attacks began.
“The plane came so close over my building I actually ducked my head under the table,” he says. “I thought it was coming into my building. The plane, the first plane, came so close over. It was like, ‘Holy s**t!’ I remember going up to roof right afterward, instantly, and I watched the whole thing from there.
“There’s no question that New York changed, in a matter of seconds, on September 11,” Kirwan continues, “and the change isn’t just that two important buildings went down and that three-thousand people died. A certain spirit left the city at that point. Those three-thousand people were young, they were go-getters, out there living the dream of New York. That particular zest that they had, the feeling of adventure and that belief that nothing could curtail them, that spirit had been felt all over New York City—until those planes hit those buildings. When their collective spirit was snuffed out, there was a huge void left behind. I still feel it.”
Immediately following the collapse of the towers, as armies of rescue workers replaced the throngs of day-workers that once filled the streets, Black 47—who normally don’t begin their downtown gigs at Connelly’s Pub until Winter—began to play every Saturday night. At night, while the rest of area was deserted and all the shops and cafés were dark, word spread that there was one show still bringing some life to the devastated downtown. Crowds made up of surviving fire-fighters, cops and rescue workers packed Connelly’s whenever Black 47 played.
“It was really strange,” says Kirwan, “because crossing Times Square was like walking across one of those old west towns where the tumbleweed rolls through it. There was nobody there. So those shows on Saturday nights, they were intense, because people really needed to let their hair down, they needed to try and breathe a little. At the same time, those first few weeks, we didn’t know who was dead and who was alive. We had so many fans who were in the Police Department and the Fire Department. It was just incredibly, incredibly hard, but it was like a mission for us, it was something we felt we had to do. We didn’t know all of our fans names, but we knew a lot of the faces of the regulars who had always come to our shows before 9-11. So the band, we sort of put it together, face by face, and that’s how we eventually figured out which of the regulars were dead. We started paying attention to those people who didn’t show up, and we eventually figured out who was gone.
“And then,” he continues, “as more and more bodies began to be identified and the Times started printing 30 or 40 pictures a day of people who’d been killed, we’d suddenly play these gigs wherre people would come up to us with pictures from the paper and ask us to play James Connelly or Banks of the Hudson, saying, ‘This was my friend’s favorite song. Would you play it?’”
“You know what the worst part was?” Kirwan asks. “The worst part was when we didn’t recognize the face. These were people who had had a really visceral connection with our band, and now they were dead—and we didn’t know who they were. It didn’t feel right. I suppose that’s part of why I won’t see the movie. It’s not that I’m avoiding reliving those days. I don’t need to re-live them. They’re still right here.”
There’s one other reason Kirwan says he will not bring himself to see World Trade Center—and why so many other people seem similarly disinclined to see the film: the war in Iraq.
Explains Kirwan, “One of the awful things about 9-11 is that the opportunity we were given at that moment, the opportunity to change the world for the better, that opportunity was lost—all because we had a venal, unimaginative person as President at that time. Think about that. Right after 9-11, the United States would have done anything to change itself. We would have given up driving one or two days a week. We would have willingly rid ourselves of our complete dependence on foreign oil. We would have changed the way we view and communicate with the rest of the world. A Winston Churchill-type person, had he been in charge of that moment, could have changed the world.
“Those kinds of opportunities come along every 30 or 40 years, and we lost it,” Kirwan says. “That is the true tragedy of 9-11. Our opportunity to turn the world upside down for the better was squandered, because we let this evil person lead us into a war in Iraq, and he used the memory of the victims and heroes of 9-11 to take us there.”
David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.