No Responders Left Behind

Jon Stewart and John Feal tilt at windmills in Washington.

(2021) Documentary (Discovery Plus) Jon Stewart, John Feal, Ray Pfeiffer, Luis Alvarez, Kenny Anderson, Michael O’Connell, Richard Alles, Kristin Gillibrand, Stephen Grossman, Ken George, Chris Foerster, James Zadroga, Michael Barasch, Benjamin Chevat, Cindy Eli. Directed by Rob Lindsay

 

Most people, when they think of the death toll of the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, come up with the number of 2,996. However, the death toll is much higher than that – many of the first responders and volunteers who dug through the wreckage of the World Trade Center looking for survivors, and afterwards, to clean up the site, ended up infected with a variety of toxins that have led to life-threatening illnesses. Thousands have died since then, and more are sure to join them.

But what was a national disgrace is that many of these people lost their health insurance because their illnesses left them unable to work. Many lost their homes as well. John Feal was a supervisor for a demolition company that was hired to assist with the clean-up; he ended up badly injured on the job due to an accident. When his health care coverage was cut off and he was left with enormous medical bills he couldn’t begin to pay, he became an activist, finding that many of those heroes of 9/11 – those who ran into the Trade Center to save lives and managed to survive – were unable to afford to buy the medication and treatment needed to keep them alive. The fund that was established to assist them was set to last only five years, but was likely to run out of money long before then. Something needed to be done.

He had an ally – former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who had retired from television at the time, but even though he made a couple of movies in the interim, devoted much of his time to this cause. As plans to fund the needs of those who politicians swore we would never forget went through Congress, it became a political football, being added to other bills in order to make them more attractive to progressive congressmen – or less attractive to conservative congressmen.

In all honesty, it was a national disgrace. While the Republicans were moaning about the deficit (and cutting taxes for corporations and the super-wealthy), people were dying. At last, in front of Congress, Feal convinced Stewart not to use his pre-written speech and speak from the heart. Stewart’s testimony, ending famously with a fierce “They did their jobs. Now do yours!” led to the success that was needed and should never have been an issue in the first place.

This documentary shows the fight going back to the days just after 9/11 and all the way to the renewal of the funding just two short years ago. It took 18 years for the first responders to get what they were due, which is an absolute embarrassment and a prime example of how are political system is broken. Lindsay opts to just allow the story to be told; there are few interviews other than archival ones. What results is a stirring and moving portrait that deservedly paints Feal and Stewart as heroes and introduces us to other heroes, such as Ray Pfeiffer, who was one of the leading advocates for the First Responders group until he died from his illnesses, and Luis Alvarez, who testified before congress only two weeks before the multiple cancers that had invaded his body due to his absorption of toxins at Ground Zero ended his life. This is one movie every American should see.

REASONS TO SEE: A tribute to the power of persistence and determination. The stories are wrenching and emotional. Stewart’s speech before Congress is one for the ages. A great story simply told. Makes heroes (and deservedly so) out of Stewart and Feal.
REASONS TO AVOID: May hit too close to home for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feal is co-founder of the FealGood Foundation, which assists first responders and supporters who suffer illness or injury on the job and afterwards don’t get the care and coverage that they need. You can find out more about it here.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Freedom to Marry
FINAL RATING: 10/10
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