Film Review: Man in Red Bandana

An emotionally devastating documentary about a remarkable man who died saving others on 9/11 falls apart toward the end when it loses all objectivity and descends into hagiography.
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He remains known 16 years after being killed while saving some dozen people trapped in the World Trade Center's South Tower on 9/11. Welles Remy Crowther, the mysterious man wearing a red bandana across his face to keep out dust, located the one working stairwell at the 78th-floor impact zone, and led otherwise doomed individuals to safety before disappearing. For many months, before his identity became known, he was like a myth—one former New York City Fire Department commissioner says many thought that the survivors, suffering shock, had just imagined him.

But Crowther was real, and New York attorney and first-time filmmaker Matthew J. Weiss does a commendable job of getting the hero's parents and a number of those he saved to appear onscreen and relive one of the worst days imaginable. For most of its running time, Man in Red Bandana is a heart-wrenching documentary that gathers disparate stories and gives them cohesive context. And then it just can't help but descend into hyperbolic hagiography.

Until then, it expertly traces Crowther's life growing up in Upper Nyack, NY, just north of New York City. The son of Alison and Jefferson Crowther and older brother to two sisters—and, though the documentary doesn't mention it, grandson of Bosley Crowther, the famed New York Times film critic from 1940 to 1967—he was captain of his high-school hockey team and also played lacrosse. Wanting to emulate his father, who always carried a bandana handkerchief, Crowther adopted a red bandana as a trademark, keeping one with him even when dressed in sports uniforms. His father was a volunteer firefighter, and at 16, Crowther began firefighter training. He might have continued on that path but attended Boston College, where he was on the men's varsity lacrosse team. After graduating in 1999, he joined Sandler O'Neill & Partners as a financial analyst, and soon was promoted to equities trader. The firm's offices were on the 104th floor of the South Tower.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, its twin the North Tower was hit by a commercial airliner commandeered by terrorists. Seventeen minutes later, another plane crashed into the South, which in 56 minutes would be the first of the two to collapse. Survivor Ed Nicholls, the South Tower supervisor, and fellow survivors including Richard Fern, Stanley Praimnath, Ling Young and Kelly Reyher speak in new interviews, giving eyewitness accounts: They were on the 78th-floor sky lobby, evacuating the building and waiting for elevators, when the second plane struck. Many in the crowd were killed. Many of the survivors were badly burned or injured. After some time in the smoky blackness, disoriented and scared, they heard a commanding voice direct them to the one stairwell that, through a fluke of building design, had not been severed by the impact. The man in the red bandana, carrying a woman in shock, instructed the others to each help one other person to the stairs. When they reached the 61st floor, below the impact zone, he let the woman and the others continue on their own to safety—and then, incredibly, went back up to help more. After bringing another group down, he went back up a second time. Crowther eventually was in the lobby when he was killed.

Through news footage, and interviews both new and vintage, the filmmakers reconstruct the events of the 24-year-old Crowther's last hour—and his parents' agony at his remains not being found for months. Shortly after their recovery, Alison Crowther read a newspaper account about a heroic man who'd led many to safety from the South Tower. She says she instantly knew, and through photographs of Welles, survivors confirmed his identity. Crowther posthumously has become a symbol of selflessness and heroism, with memorials at his alma maters and elsewhere, and a charitable foundation in his name. President Barack Obama, at the World Trade Center Memorial's opening ceremony, honored him by name, and allowed his mother to give her tribute.

All that is impressive enough, and the film would have made its point and its mark if it had left it at that. But with a lack of journalistic objectivity, Weiss goes so overboard with praise—literally calling Crowther "divine," with a "saintly legacy"—that he manages to sour a documentary one would think would be beyond criticism. I know—I couldn't believe it either. It finally descends into self-parody, with Lyle Lovett performing a song, which to his credit he didn't write, that sounds like a satire of heroic ballads. The bulk of this film is so well-crafted and so emotionally moving it can literally bring tears to your eyes. And then it crosses the threshold into something that actually, inadvertently, dishonors the man by ascribing him sainthood, thereby obscuring the fact he was a person like you or me, who was doubtless scared, doubtless unsure, doubtless making do as best he could—but who unlike most of us rose above his fears and uncertainties. Saints are superhuman. Heroes are not—that's part of what makes them heroes, and something the filmmakers forgot.

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