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
NEXT:
Best Sellers

Bring Your Own Brigade


This used to be my house.

(2021) Documentary (CBS News) Marily Woodhouse, Brad Weldon, Lucy Walker, Derek Rickmers, Lauren Gill, Norma Weldon, Maeve Juarez, Char Mullen, Marshall Mullen, Mike Zucolili, Malcolm North, Steve Pyne, Zeke Lunder, Dave Jones, Kristen Shive, Chad Hanson, Mark Emerson, Mike Davis, Greg Bolin, Chris Brandini, Rick Halsey, Jim Broshears, Jody Jones. Directed by Lucy Walker

 

As I write this, the Dixie fire is burning out of control in California. Another hot summer, another spate of wildfires are scorching the West. This has beome the new normal. But does it need to be?

Oscar-winning documentarian Lucy Walker, a British transplant now living in the United States, asks that very question. She opens this two hour long documentary with footage of wildfires from around the world, including heartbreaking footage of a baby koala in Australia burning alive until saved by human hands. The animal’s piteous screams of pain are not likely to be forgotten to anyone who sees this movie anytime soon.

Then we see the human side. Walker had been in Paradise doing research on the 2017 Thomas fire that had nearly leveled the town when the Camp fire broke out, as did the Woolsey fire in Malibu. Walker had crews in both locations and was there when 88 lives were lost and thousands of structures consumed. The Camp fire remains the deadliest forest fire in the history of California.

Hearing the 911 calls of panicked people in cars and in homes, knowing that they’re about to burn alive, is absolutely devastating. While some of the folks you hear did actually manage to escape, not all of them did. It is much like hearing the 911 call of Melissa Doi from the 83rd floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The footage of burning cars and fire all around the vehicles, taken with cell phones by the survivors of the fire, would put Dante to shame.

But while Walker early on says that the movie is about hope, and it might be hard to find at the beginning. However, she examines the issues of the underlying causes of these fires and while climate change is certainly a culprit, it is by no means the only one. Logging companies planting new new trees too close together cause fires to spread further and faster; the refusal to use controlled burns to help cut down the flammable material in forests, and infrastructure (power lines that are poorly maintained, and in the case of the Camp fire, were directly responsible for the fire) maintenance inadequate to what is needed as well as homeowners failing to clean their rain gutters, leaving dry tinder in proximity to their roofs.

Perhaps the most heart-wrenching thing about the documentary is what happened in Paradise afterwards. While Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise showed a heroic side of the community (and Walker dutifully trots out Barry Weldon, a resident caring for his blind mother whose house was spared and who then put up homeless neighbors in his home), we see here firefighting professionals making a number of recommendations to help avoid the mass destruction that occurred in 2018. The city council, spurred on by angry citizens of Paradise, voted every one of them down. Every. One.

Then again, many of the folks in Paradise, given only minutes to gather belongings and flee, went immediately for their guns. Eyewitnesses report the ammo left behind going off like a war zone during the fire. One can draw parallels between the refusal to accept sensible precautions in the guise of asserting personal freedom by the citizens of Paradise to the current stance of those refusing to get vaccinated against a deadly pandemic. It turns out that we, as a species, are pretty much a bunch of morons.

The film is currently playing in select theaters around the country. Subscribers to CBSN and Paramount Plus will be able to see the movie on those services beginning August 20th.

REASONS TO SEE: Human denial is both fascinating and horrifying. Spectacular footage of the Camp fire.
REASONS TO AVOID A little bit too anecdotal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT The Camp Fire remains the deadliest wildfire in the history of California to this date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews; Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Inhabitants: An Indigenous Perspective
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Toxico