The New Normal
If you want an idea of what New York was like in the immediate days after 9/11, here you go. For me, it’s a shattering reminder — not that I need one — of that lost daze all us New Yorkers wandered around in for weeks in the fall of 2001. I pretty much start sobbing as The Guys opens, with footage from a firehouse security camera, one lone fireman in shorts standing on the sidewalk, just watching the world go by; the timestamp reads 09.11.01 8:48am, the last innocent moment before a shower of office paper starts to fall in the street. And I don’t stop crying for the whole movie, like I thought I was better, I was over it, I had moved on, but all the anger and the grief and the denial that it happened and the newsflash all over again that, yes, it happened… it was just under the surface, waiting for the merest scratch to bring it up again.
It’s 10 days after the attacks, and Nick, a fire captain, has to write eulogies for eight men lost from his station, and he has no idea what to say. Joan, a writer, jumps at the chance to give him a hand, not just because he “needs a writer” and how often does that happen, but because it’s something to do to help. And while The Guys is ostensibly about the guys, the ordinary heroes of the day and one man’s grief for them, it’s also very much about the grieving process of an entire city, something that I don’t think has ever been explored in film before. And this was how we all felt, like we needed to do something, anything, to help, and the powerless feeling that those of us who weren’t cops or firemen or rescue workers or whatever were stuck with only made the whole thing so much worse. So we understand Joan’s eagerness to work with Nick.
Based on Anne Nelson’s play, this is a talky film, but that’s what people wanted to do after 9/11: talk, and for a year or more afterward, every conversation in New York would come back around to that day. Sigourney Weaver (Company Man, Galaxy Quest) and Anthony LaPaglia (Analyze That, The Salton Sea) keep the film from being static, all the movement in their faces and their gazes, creating an odd intimacy between strangers much like what people all over New York were experiencing — we all had this one big thing in common now, except Nick’s experience is lot harder than most of the rest of the city’s. Joan has to drag information about his guys out of him at first, but soon it’s pouring out — even when “there’s really not that much to say,” he finds that there is all sorts of real, funny, charming stories about average joes that you discover you’re sorry you never got to meet. The little details of their everyday lives — one guy’s obsession with his tools, the wrangling over work schedules that doomed one man and saved another, the new arrivals at the house who were “chomping at the bit” for a big fire and got their wish — are heartwrenching, humanizing these abstract “heroes” we’ve been hearing about.
There’s a little interlude, as Joan and Nick take a break from their work and he introduces her to the beauty of his one unexpected hobby: dancing. It’s a little relief from the pain, a brief moment when you can almost forget what happened, a nudging notice that life will continue to go on no matter how unlikely it seems in the middle of disaster. But mostly, The Guys replicates that disjointed feeling that everything and everyone was out of whack and that nothing would ever be right again. We did get back to normal, as Joan predicts we would, but normal is different.