Film Review: Out of the Clear Blue Sky

Heartrending documentary about how bond trader Cantor Fitzgerald lost over two-thirds of their nearly 1,000 New York employees on 9/11 sometimes resembles a made-for-the-families film, but its story is powerful enough to sweep any aesthetic concerns as

While there have been enough documentaries about 9/11 by this point to create a certain kind of visual similarity among them—the mixing of home-movie footage with news clips of the attacks and intimate interviews with relatives, friends and survivors—films like Danielle Gardner’s Out of the Clear Blue Sky are a kind of Tolstoyan reminder that all tragedies are unique. In telling the story of the near-decimation of the bond-trading firm Cantor Fitzgerald in the attacks on the World Trade Center, Gardner—whose brother Doug was among those lost—doesn’t just stick to an arc of horror, mourning, and some limited sense of rebirth. She also digs into some of the more terribly unique aspects of what happened to Cantor—namely, how do you keep a business running after something like that? Is it something that should even be done?

To help navigate that thorny mess, Gardner has an able guide: Cantor’s CEO Howard Lutnick. His survival that day is just one of many but-for-the-grace-of-God moments that litter the film. Lutnick describes seeing his son off on his first day of school when he heard about the first plane hitting. He raced downtown, arriving in time to witness the collapse of first one tower, then the next, helpless to do anything for his workers trapped high above on floors 101 through 105 of Tower One. Immediately following the collapse, life for the families and surviving employees like Lutnick became a flooding mix of denial and frantic action that many went through that day. What will not ring familiar to a lot of people, though, is when Lutnick (with his brother missing and no idea how many made it out) starts talking about how just a day later he joined a conference call with financial giants like Lehman and Bear Stearns to talk about reopening the bond market immediately.

It’s an incredible tale of how that came together, and Gardner crafts it with no faked drama (though some of the distracting, fuzzy-lens reenactment scenes could have been done without). Lutnick and his fellow executives went down the list of employees like generals after a battlefield rout, identifying who was even still alive to get the work done. When Cantor reopens for business, they have to work almost entirely in the dark, with nearly no infrastructure; trades are written on napkins and the backs of envelopes. Meanwhile, they’re flooded with business from a financial community desperate to help; Lutnick notes the irony of not having the resources to handle the good will: “We were starving and everybody in the world stuffed a piece of bread in our mouths.”

The film’s other theme follows from this pained yet desperate desire to get back to work. Three days after the attacks, Cantor announced their relief fund for employees’ families and dependents. Lutnick tells them, “You are now our family,” and announces that Cantor will cover the families’ healthcare for the next ten years and would distribute to them one-quarter of the firm’s profits for the next five. To keep that promise, profits had to be made, and fast; no matter that the calendar was filling up with hundreds and hundreds of funeral services and the families were starting to ask uncomfortable questions about paychecks. While Lutnick had a reputation for being one of the tougher bosses on the Street, his persona when interviewed by the major networks after 9/11 was more that of the anguished father, tearful and wailing and unable to comprehend either the gaping void of loss or the gargantuan responsibility now staring him in the face. That same, though definitely calmed, persona shows through in Gardner’s interviews.

While Lutnick is clearly the go-to person for a documentary like this, by the end of the film it suffers somewhat for making it too much about him. Gardner does spend time with several other Cantor workers and family members of the dead, but she lets too much of the film’s conclusion become about Lutnick and how he faced down ugly media charges of not living up to his promises and ultimately overcame them. As with the film’s sometimes unpolished look and occasionally overly narrow focus, though, it’s a minor quibble with this frequently harrowing depiction of how people can take on seemingly impossible tasks for the simple reason that they don’t see any other alternative.