Is it really possible to capture the true scope of a tragedy in a single film? Moreover, is such an undertaking especially difficult if the filmmaker is operating from within that very tragedy? These are the essential questions of Out of the Clear Blue Sky, a documentary as close to the events of September 11th, 2001, as one can possibly get in the year 2013. Director Danielle Gardner’s brother Doug was one of the 658 employees of Cantor Fitzgerald to lose their lives that day, in the company’s offices on the 101st-105th stories of WTC 1. This film is the story of their families.
As a straightforward narrative, it has a number of very moving moments. The many subjects, employees of Cantor Fitzgerald who weren’t there that day and the family members of those who were, offer a number of stunning, heartfelt testimonies. Some of the year’s most compelling interview footage is in this film. Yet on the whole, Gardner’s approach is caught between two stylistic poles. Its defensive presentation of once-embattled Cantor Fitzgerald CEO Howard Lutnick keeps things at arm’s length, while its formal excesses push a little bit too eagerly on an already receptive audience.
For the first few weeks after the disaster, Lutnick rode a wave of national sympathy based on a number of high profile television appearances in which he tearfully vowed to take care of all of the grieving families of his lost employees. Yet shortly thereafter the wave crashed when some of the people involved accused him of refusing to deliver on his promises. His initial reactions to the tragedy, shown in the film, do seem open to theories of disingenuousness, grounded in the vagueness of his promises and his token memories of generically named “Big Carl” and “Big Frank.” In no way does this prove his guilt, and he has since proven himself time and again, but the way that Gardner so quickly dismisses many of the criticisms of Lutnick in the aftermath of the tragedy does not seem entirely fair to the other distraught Cantor Fitzgerald families.
In fact, Lutnick’s central role in Out of the Clear Blue Sky occasionally leads to an almost combative mood. He is a constant presence, both in interview clips and footage of his visits to funerals, memorials and meetings. His choice to keep the business open and his successful return to bonds trading is portrayed as nothing short of miraculous and heroic. Gardner defends him with such vigor that the film borders on corporate paternalism, in a way that could very easily alienate a post-Recession America that no longer takes the positive influence of Wall Street at face value.
Meanwhile, the film doesn’t quite trust its audience. In a Q&A on the Out of the Clear Blue Sky website, Gardner explains that much of the interview footage was cut because “other people wouldn’t be able to understand it.” This position makes a lot of sense. Of course a general audience would never be able to entirely see from the perspective of the families of the victims of 9/11.
Yet in order to make up for the cuts, the film goes well out of its way to reach out to the audience. For much of the first 45 minutes, almost every scene described by almost every interview subject is re-enacted. A woman scrubbing the floor, a man listening to a ticking clock, a wife watching a helicopter fly by, the white boards in a London office, and everything else. It becomes almost obsessive, this project of fully illustrating every possible detail. It borders on a lack of trust in the audience, which is peculiar given how urgent so many stories of individual families became in the nation’s consciousness in the years after 2001.
Documentaries this personal are not by definition a bad idea. However, mismanagement of that gap between the audience’s perception and the filmmaker’s perspective can entirely change the character of a film. Out of the Clear Blue Sky is a film made by and for the families of those Cantor Fitzgerald employees who lost their lives on 9/11, and for them it is by definition beautiful and striking. For everyone else, it might not quite work.