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

Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing


An act of cowardice.

An act of cowardice.

(2016) Documentary (HBO) Jessica Kensky, Patrick Downes, Sydney Corcoran, Daniel Linsky, JP Norden, Paul Norden, Kevin Corcoran, Deval Patrick, Chief Eduard Deveau, Celeste Corcoran, John Tlumacki, David Filipov, Patricia Wen, Jim Allen, Sgt. John MacLellan, Eric Moskowitz, Cpl. Clark Cavalier, Kelly Castine, Herman Kensky, Daniel Abel, Kieran Ramsey, Sgt. Brandon Dodson, Katy Kensky. Directed by Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg

 

Most of us remember well the bombing of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. It hasn’t been quite four years but few of us have forgotten the shock of a terrorist attack on a major city, the loss of life and limb and the intensive manhunt for the bombers that followed.

It was also one of the most documented events of our time; security cameras not only caught the explosions but also were instrumental in helping law enforcement catch the two despicable wastes of flesh whose names won’t be mentioned here; one of the two died in a police shoot-out, the other was captured and sentenced to death – hopefully by having a homemade bomb strapped to his ‘nads and then detonated.

My feelings about cowardly scum who set off bombs in crowds of innocent people aside, Stern and Sundberg have assembled a massive amount of footage and helped piece together the events of the bombing meticulously and clearly. They’ve also followed some of the survivors in their efforts to overcome the horrendous injuries that they sustained both physically and psychologically. They’ve talked to the police who pursued the bombers and the reporters from the Boston Globe who covered the attack and who often received horrible emails and tweets because of it (some people felt the Globe was exploiting the attacks and giving too much coverage to the bombers themselves). The only ones not interviewed that I wish would have been were first responders on the scene – paramedics, ambulance drivers and ordinary people whose actions saved lives that day.

The filmmakers follow mainly Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, a pair of newlyweds who were standing by one of the bombs when it went off. Both had run the Marathon at one time; that year they chose to watch. Each lost a leg and Kensky eventually lost both after a valiant effort on her part to keep it. Both were plagued by depression and PTSD and eventually got help from the Walter Reed Hospital which treats those wounded in war by IADs and such. That particular segment is one of the most inspiring in the entire film and was the one that brought the most goosebumps and misty eyes on my part.

It also follows the Corcoran family who had several injured by the bombs; the impact of their agony led to some difficulties among those who were uninjured, including alcohol abuse and withdrawal from life. Celeste Corcoran lost both legs in the blast; she had been cheering on a sister who was running in the race. Sydney Corcoran had her femoral artery severed; only a quick-thinking veteran who reached into her leg and squeezed the artery shut saved her life or else she would have bled out on the sidewalk. That moment was caught by John Tlumacki, a Globe photography who received a great deal of criticism for capturing the moment even though it became a defining one of the entire incident. Finally there were the Norden brothers, Paul and JP, both of whom were gravely injured and taken to separate hospitals, forcing their mom Liz to have to go back and forth to each hospital as the brothers underwent several surgeries apiece.

One of the things that you may want to keep in mind when choosing to view this is that the footage of the bombing itself is largely uncensored; there is a terrifying amount of blood and some who are sensitive to such things may end up being disturbed by the footage. You get a real sense of the carnage and the chaos at the scene but thankfully only that – I can’t imagine the smell of gunpowder and blood and the screams of pain and fear that had to be going on that day.

This is a compelling documentary which could easily have been about humanity’s darker side. Instead, the filmmakers chose to make it about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and how a city stood up, joined hands and supported one another through a dark period. I’ve seen that first hand – not only in Boston but in my home town Orlando as well following the Pulse shootings.

It’s hard to capture all the details of an event as important as this in a single two hour movie but at the very least Stern and Sundberg have captured the essence of it and that is all you can ask of any documentary. It’s life-affirming and haunting and at times hard to watch but it is at the end of the day essential viewing.

REASONS TO GO: It’s very thorough in all aspects of the film both pre and post race. The stories are compelling and there are lots of good feels. The focus is on the survivors as it should be.
REASONS TO STAY: It would have been nice to get interviews from first responders on the scene.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some bloody images and descriptions of grisly injuries; there is also some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Boston Globe co-produced the documentary; their coverage of the event won the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Patriot’s Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Patriot’s Day