Man in Red Bandana


Welles Remy Crowther believed we are all connected as one human family and we are here to care for and help each other.

(2017) Documentary (Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (voice), Barack Obama, Jefferson “Jeff’ Crowther, Alison Crowther, John Howells, Welles Remy Crowther (voice), Ling Young, Harry Wanamaker, Judy Wein (voice), Honor Crowther-Fagan, Kelly Reyher, Gerry Sussman, Richard Fern, Chris Varman, Ed Nicholls, Eric Lipton, Ron DiFrancesco, Donna Spera, Paige Crowther-Charbonneau. Directed by Matthew J. Weiss

 

There are heroes that we know about, those who are rightly praised and their stories oft-repeated. Then there are the heroes we don’t know about, people who should be household names but aren’t but still in all fit the definition of heroism to a “T.”

Welles Remy Crowther is one such. He is one of thousands who perished on September 11, 2001 in the World Trade Center – in his case, in the South Tower. What he did in his last hour of life has been enough to grab the attention of President Barack Obama, who recounted the young 24-year-old equities trader’s story at the dedication of the 9/11 Museum in New York City and has already been the subject of a documentary short on ESPN.

Crowther was the son of Jefferson “Jeff” Welles, a volunteer firefighter and his mother Alison and grew up in Nyack, New York. He was athletic, lettering in ice hockey and lacrosse in high school and playing varsity lacrosse at Boston College. After graduating, he got a job at Sandler, O’Neil and Partners on the 104th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. However, as he confessed to his father a month before the attack, he was considering a career change, one that he actually made – after he died.

After the United Flight 175 slammed into the South Tower, Crowther made his way down to the 78th floor where the plane had impacted. He found several survivors there, all frozen in fear and panicking in the dense smoke and flames. He was able to discover the one clear stairway left and guided those survivors to it, making three separate trips up and down the stairs. He was in the lobby, within sight of safety, preparing to return to the 78th with firefighters who had the rescue equipment needed to bring those who were unable to make the stairs on their own when the tower collapsed. His body wouldn’t be recovered until the following March.

He’d left a haunting voice mail message for his mother before the second plane hit, assuring her that he was all right. After that, he called his college roommate John Howells to let him know he was going to get out but the young man’s nature was not to abandon those who needed help. He always carried a red bandana – a gift from his firefighter dad whom he idolized and who carried an identical blue one – and he wore it on this occasion to filter out the smoke and dust. He took it off only briefly but survivor Ling Young, one of the ten (at least) that is positively known that he rescued that day, clearly saw his face and would later identify him to his mother but we’ll get to that more in a moment.

His family was understandably devastated; when his funeral was held, there had been no remains recovered to that point so an empty casket was buried. This was hard for his mother Alison to accept so she went on a quest, pouring over news photos, print articles and documentaries, trying to find some mention, anything, that would tell her something about how her son died. Years later, the New York Times did a comprehensive article on the timeline of the disaster, organizing it by towers and by groups of floors. Reporter Eric Lipton was assigned the area where Welles had been and noticed that several survivors had reported being guided out by a man in a red bandana. Alison knew immediately that this was her son. She contacted survivors Judy Wein and Young and both of them were able to identify Welles from pictures that Alison had.

The documentary was directed by first-time filmmaker Matthew Weiss, who had heard Welles’ story from Jeff Welles, who had worked in the bank Weiss uses. Weiss’ inexperience shows in a number of places; the movie feels padded a bit towards the end as all the monuments and tributes to Welles are listed and shown. The re-enactments are a bit sketchy as well. Paltrow’s narration is surprisingly bloodless; she has always been a very emotional actress so I was surprised when the narration sounded  a bit too much like she was reading it without caring much about the words.

But Weiss also took an inspiring story and brought it to life. The animated graphics he used to explain how the planes impacted the building, why the impacts brought the Towers down and where Welles Crowther went in that last hour are informative albeit simple. It’s a shame Weiss didn’t have the budget for more elaborate animation but on the flip side they may have detracted from the film. Simple is generally better even when it comes to films.

The interviews with Welles’ family are understandably emotional. You get a real sense of the devastating effect his passing had on them, on his friends and on the community at large. Clearly he was well-liked by just about everyone who knew him; high school hockey teammates (one tells of a pass that Welles made to him so that he could get the first goal of his varsity career and afterwards retrieved the puck so he could keep it), and work colleagues. He didn’t seem to have a steady girlfriend however; at least none were interviewed here although being a handsome and likable young man I’m sure he had his share of girlfriends. The movie doesn’t give too much of a sense of Welles’ personal life beyond his sports achievements and his love for firefighting and desire to become one.

One of the reasons Welles’ story isn’t better known may be that he “only” saved ten lives; the media loves big numbers over smaller ones after all but at the end of the day he gave his life for people he didn’t know at the cost of his own and despite the fact that he could have continued down the stairs with the first group and easily have saved himself. That he chose to return at least three more times is mind-blowing. I can’t think of anything more heroic than that. For his heroism he was the first man to be honored as a firefighter in the Fire Department of New York City posthumously and in several memorials to fallen first responded he is listed as a firefighter there. What is particularly moving about this is that when his father was cleaning out Welles’ apartment sometime later, he discovered applications for the FDNY that Welles had partially filled out. This was the career change he had discussed with his dad before he died.

There is a great deal of 9/11 footage here of the planes hitting the building and the towers collapsing, some of it unseen before now. Even though sixteen years have passed as of this writing since that terrible day, for some the images may just be too traumatic and trigger feelings that may bring back a whole lot of pain. Those who have difficulties still in watching 9/11 footage or seeing images from that day should be advised that this may be difficult for them to handle.

This is far from perfect filmmaking and some critics are really taking Weiss to task for not producing something more polished. I can understand their gripes but they are at the end of the day, it is the story and not always how it’s told that is important. This is a story that every American should know; hell, this is a story that every human should know. Welles Remy Crowther represents the best in all of us. He is a true hero in an era where they are desperately needed.

REASONS TO GO: The film is extremely inspiring. The graphics showing how the planes brought the tower down were informative. The background music is effective without being overpowering. You feel like you really get to know the parents. The survivor stories are extremely detailed.
REASONS TO STAY: This may still be too traumatic for those who are especially emotional about the fall of the Twin Towers.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes here are fairly adult and there are some disturbing images and re-enactments of 9/11.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The charitable trust founded by the Crowthers to honor their son can be reached (and donated to at) here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 9/11: The Falling Man
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: The Mummy (2017)

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Pick of the Litter – September 2017


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

It

(Warner brothers) Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Javier Botet. Stephen King’s creepy novel about a killer clown terrorizing a group of Maine boys and years later, the same boys as men was famously a television miniseries with the great Tim Curry as Pennywise. Now, the book is a movie with an all-new cast and an all-new Pennywise. Children are disappearing in the town of Derry and a creepy clown haunts the woods and sewers of the town, but Pennywise is much more than he seems and the danger even worse. Beware the deadlights! September 8

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Animal Crackers

(Arclight/Blue Dream) Starring the voices of John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Danny DeVito, Sylvester Stallone. A young family man has the horrible job of taste testing dog biscuits. When he inherits a rundown circus, he discovers the secret to the circus’ past success – a box of magic animal crackers that allows him to turn into any animal in the box and then back to human again. However, he must contend with an evil uncle who wants the circus for himself. The trailer looked awfully cute and heartwarming; this might be a sleeper family hit. September 1

Dolores

(PBS) Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, Hilary Clinton, Robert Kennedy. One of the most successful labor movements in American history was the United Farm Workers, which radically improved working conditions for the mainly Hispanic farm workers of California. Although most associate Cesar Chavez with the movement, the heart and soul of the UFW was truly Dolores Huerta. A firebrand of a leader and an indomitable advocate for those she represented, her contributions are largely unsung due to her being a woman but this documentary aims to rectify that oversight. September 1

 Man in Red Bandana

(Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (narrator), Barack Obama. This time of year usually brings back memories of one of the worst days in American history and of course movies about that day – September 11, 2001. There are so many stories about heroism in the face of unspeakable horror but few are as unforgettable as that of Welles Remy Crowther, a young man in a red bandana who saved ten people (at least) at the World Trade Center that terrible day. September 8

School Life

(Magnolia) Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane. Education is important and despite attacks on the institutions of education from all sides, there remain places where it is taken seriously. In England, a boarding school in a converted manor has taken a rock and roll attitude towards learning, giving students more of a say in what they learn. With two long-time teachers at the school retiring, we get an inside look at the joys of growing up, learning and being inspired. September 8

The Force

(Kino Lorber) Juan Carlos Zapala, Libby Schaaf. This timely documentary explores an embattled urban police force from the inside out. The Oakland (California) Police Department has a legacy of corruption and police brutality that it struggles to deal with on a daily basis. With the citizens of Oakland growing increasingly frustrated over the dysfunctional relationship between the cops and the African-American community and with pressure mounting from above to fix it, the OPD tries to make real changes from within while keeping the safety of both cops and civilians uppermost in mind. September 15

Loving Vincent

(Good Deed) Starring the voices of Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Gulaczyk. Ten years in the making, this is the first film to be fully animated using oil paintings on canvas as the medium. The story revolves around the mysterious death of master Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh; was it suicide or was it murder? A young man charged to deliver a letter from the recently deceased painter to his brother Theo discovers that Theo has also died and becomes determined to understand the painter, his works and his death. September 22

Stronger

(Roadside Attractions) Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Clancy Brown, Miranda Richardson. The latest from director David Gordon Green examines the true story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation when both his legs were blown off during the Boston Marathon bombing. There only to win back his girlfriend, he battled back to become a symbol of hope that inspired the entire city but it was no easy path to get there. September 22

Lucky

(Magnolia) Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Tom Skeritt, Ed Begley Jr. A 90 year old atheist, reaching the last days of his life, goes on a journey to try and discover the meaning his life has had amidst an odd collection of eccentrics in a desert town. Stanton, one of the legends of cinema, may very well be on his way to a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance here. September 29