Heartening

09.11.13

Reliving 9/11, With Tears: ‘Out of the Clear Blue Sky,’ Reviewed

Every single Cantor Fitzgerald employee who reported for work on floors 101 through 105 of the North Tower died on September 11, 2001. Lloyd Grove reviews ‘Out of the Clear Blue Sky,’ a documentary about one weeping man’s quest to save his decimated company and console the families of the dead.

“I had not intended to cry, but I couldn’t think about all those faces without crying,” Howard Lutnick recalls. “It wasn’t up to me. I wasn’t in control.” Lutnick, the chairman and chief executive of the Wall Street trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald, is filmed sobbing a great deal in Out of the Clear Blue Sky, and not only is it impossible to blame him, it’s hard to resist the impulse to join him.

Lutnick, a master of the universe abruptly laid low, is shown fighting to keep his composure in a series of television interviews (with Connie Chung, Larry King, and others) after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in which every single Cantor Fitzgerald employee who reported for work that morning on floors 101 through 105 in the North Tower of the World Trade Center—658 in all, including Lutnick’s brother, Gary—was killed by fire, smoke, and God knows what when one of two hijacked jetliners hit, ultimately toppling the massive skyscraper. The other crashed into the South Tower with similar results.

Lutnick, then 40, was spared because he was dropping off his son that morning at his first day of kindergarten on the Upper East Side. He rushed downtown to the hellish scene, only to be blasted by a “tornado,” as he describes it, of ash and debris. He couldn’t see; he couldn’t hear. “Am I dead?” he wondered, before jabbing himself in the eye and feeling the sharp pain of life. Writer-director Danielle Gardner makes compelling use of all the horrifically iconic images. They have lost none of their gut-wrenching power.

“Oh my goodness,” an all but trembling Bryant Gumbel, then host of the Today show, laments on camera, in a video clip from that terrible week. “His entire firm, everybody who works in his office ... is gone. His entire office. Everybody! Everybody! I watched this guy tell his story. It just ripped me up. I couldn’t handle it.”

“His entire firm, everybody who works in his office ... is gone. His entire office. Everybody!”

The film, which will receive a special nationwide screening in select theaters on Wednesday night, the 12th anniversary of the slaughter, is an emotionally draining and yet ultimately heartening documentary that follows Lutnick, a sort of weeping prophet in the spirit of Jeremiah, as he and his surviving co-workers cope with their sorrow, try to save their decimated company, and console the families of the dead. 

They also weathered devastating publicity—and in Lutnick’s case, obscene messages and death threats—after the firm was widely portrayed in the media as too slow to fulfill a public promise to compensate the victims’ spouses and children with 25 percent of the company’s profits for 5 years and keep them on health insurance for 10 years. 

Amid the grief and confusion in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, Lutnick and his surviving managers had determined that while the company, if it managed to stay in business—a big “if”—could distribute a chunk of the profits, Cantor Fitzgerald couldn’t afford to keep writing paychecks to deceased employees. It was a decision that, understandably, was greeted with anger by the survivors.

Equity trader Craig Cummings recalls that outraged relatives started going on television to vent at Lutnick and the company “because they’re not getting any information.” But “human resources can’t call you, because they’re all dead,” Cummings says. “We don’t have a human-resources department. We don’t have a corporate-communications department. We don’t have an accounting department to tell you what your husband’s paycheck was supposed to be for the quarter. We don’t know.”

Bill O’Reilly—then, as now, the king of Fox News—went on The Factor to urge his viewers not to contribute to the emergency fund that Lutnick set up to aid the bereaved families, who suddenly found themselves without a breadwinner. “Bill O’Reilly got people to stop giving to the relief fund,” recalls Lutnick’s wife, Allison, not bothering to hide her disgust. Cantor Fitzgerald ultimately made good, paying out $180 million.

Among other things, the movie is an object lesson in the human capacity for grace under pressure (as Ernest Hemingway once defined courage, which Lutnick and his colleagues demonstrated in spades), but also a lesson in the apparently equal capacity for savagery and idiocy—within the terrorists, to be sure, but also the raging morons who left profanity-laced voicemails on Lutnick’s phone and wished for a plane to crash into the house where he lived with his wife and young children.

In the end, Lutnick—he of the “ruthless, cutthroat reputation on Wall Street,” as one of the film’s subtitles describes him—turns things around by presiding over endless town meetings, offering himself up as a target of the families’ fury and staying until the last hostile question is lobbed, and attending so many funerals of Cantor Fitzgerald employees that, as he tells the camera, “I know the Eucharist by heart; I know all the memorial services: Irish Catholic, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish. I was an expert.”

Director Gardner does an admirable job of getting Lutnick and other witnesses, including wives, husbands, siblings, and parents of the victims, to bare their souls; they are eloquent and affecting. She also synthesizes their recollections into an epic narrative worthy of her epic subject. I only wish she didn’t feel the need at times to gild the lily—staging a dramatization of a contentious town meeting using tear-streaked actors and purposefully misidentifying video of Lutnick taking his son to school as “Tuesday, September 11, 2001. 8:30 a.m.,” when in fact it was shot a year later.

But these are quibbles. Gardner, it turns out, has a deeply personal connection to the tragedy. Her brother, Douglas, is one of the dead, and she dedicates Out of the Clear Blue Sky to him. Also to their parents, Joseph and Charlotte—“both lost to cancer and broken hearts in the years since the attacks.”