“9/11 Was Four Years Ago, Champ. Get a Grip.”

Rescue Me and World Trade Center

When someone suffers a loss, as indeed this whole country, even the world, did, on 9/11/01, those first days are so horrific that nobody wants to live through them again. At the same time, for the survivors, the days afterward can feel much lonelier as time goes on and the collective attention span gets distracted by other issues. This is the New York City where Rescue Me’s acerbic, foul-mouthed firefighter Tommy Gavin lives, works, and piles up parking tickets, and where he is beginning to find it takes more than a hearty fist-pumping “FDNY!” to put things right. Oliver Stone’s police officers in World Trade Center have to stand strong in the face of immediate tragedy and death. I think this fact shapes the storytelling of each as much as any other factor, in spite of the differences in medium between television and movies. In a very real sense, Rescue Me starts after World Trade Center ends with a swell of triumphal music and a hug. What does it mean to be a survivor? What happened after the little old ladies in Iowa stopped sending afghans and cookies?

Tommy is, quite literally, haunted by all the death he saw that morning in September so long ago, most often in the form of his cousin’s ghost, since his cousin was his best friend and fellow firefighter Jimmy Keefe. Jimmy is, in Tommy’s recollection, at least as faithful and true as the rookie policemen that populate Stone’s opus, but in Leary and Tolan’s universe, it’s Tommy, the “cocky prick” who survives. Tommy suffers sufficient guilt over this that, in season two of the series, he has visions of Jesus tightening the cross on his bed or exchanging eye-rolling commiseration with an irritated Mary Magdalene. “Has he done that regular guy shit yet?” the world’s most famous fallen woman asks.” He has this whole thing where he sits on your bed and asks for a sandwich ... well, at least you have something to look forward to.” Tommy hates the commoditization represented by the vendors selling cookies and T-shirts on the way to Ground Zero, but he is not above using surviving the events to his own advantage, either to get out of something unpleasant, as an excuse to drink, or to pick up an attractive stranger. The patrolman who gives Tommy the parking ticket sums it up, with some bitterness. “9/11 was four years ago, champ. Get a grip ... we have learned that not every firefighter is a brave man ... some of you do blow. Some of you have gangbangs ... and you are a broken-down Irish drunk.”

Stone’s portrait is decidedly less ambiguous. We have a clean-cut, domesticated group of young police recruits who treat their sergeant, played with weary authenticity by Nicolas Cage, as a father figure. Although I mostly treasure irreverence, I find that I don’t always fault Stone for this interpretation. Whatever these young men may have been up to during their off-hours, they were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, and he had two hours to tell one tale, not four seasons like Leary and Tolan. It’s not surprising that he aimed for primary colors and heavy brushstrokes, but there are times, despite the overall quality of the performances, where World Trade Center approaches propaganda. The wives don’t live so much in upstate New York so much as Disneyland’s Main Street USA ... the light is so perfect and warm at every moment of the “survivors waiting at home” scenes it’s as if they got every bit of sunlight their trapped spouses were denied during their ordeal. If Stone wanted to make thought or fantasy scenes from the trapped cops look like this, I would be less likely to object because nothing looks so perfect as a place you believe yourself likely not to see again, but if Stone’s desire was to make a definitive account (as, truthfully, when was it not?) he’d be better served by just trying to reflect a reality that is dramatic enough without so much prodding. The viewer is constantly reminded that these are Real, Hardworking Americans who live in the same neighborhood as their families and always keep a flag hanging in the yard. Although that is benign bull compared to quotes like “It looks like God made a curtain to hide what we weren’t meant to see.” Despite his faithful retelling (for the most part) of an event in the recent past, the effect is a heavy nostalgia for the world we may have lost when the planes hit, if we ever had it at all, where men were men, women planned fundraisers, and children’s biggest secrets involved hoped-for Yankee playoff tickets. Still, the film has some strong moments when the trapped men just interact with each other, when Stone and the script forget about the overall legacy and as when the rookie cop Jimeno confesses he got the idea to become a cop from watching Starsky and Hutch and both men hum the theme song.

In addition to the grief and loss of 9/11, the firefighters of Truck 62 are dealing with the challenges of the modern, diverse workplace, fragmented families, and sexual experimentation. They probably come from the same sorts of backgrounds as the cops that went inside the tower.The Gavin family, in addition to the more ... colorful aspects of their heritage featuring spirits and adultery, also appears to have a tradition of serving the public. Tommy’s dad and Uncle Teddy are retired firefighters, Tommy’s brother Johnny is a police detective, and their cousin Mickey recently left the priesthood after twenty years. They have the traditional notions of many things they grew up with, but it’s still the 21st century for them, too, and some of their ideals have gotten frayed around the edges. Heroes develop problems from all that they’ve seen; wives discover that it can be hard to be married to a man with “the biggest set of balls in the world.” Considering that World Trade Center was made in 2005, about events in 2001, it is a tremendously old-fashioned film, although Rescue Me’s plots aren’t always served by the envelope-pushing amounts of nudity or by having the firehouse crew be touched by every possible lifestyle trend (most significantly in season 2, being Sheila Keefe’s affair with a physically abusive woman.) Dark humor is the saving grace to this show, keeping it from melodrama much as it keeps Tommy from the bottle. Even the most tragic events, such as the loss of the Gavins’ young son Connor in the season finale are leavened with humor to show us that these characters will survive, and we can too, even if we don’t always have justice, clarity, or Oliver Stone’s SuperMarine from Wisconsin to bail us out. A phenomenal example from the last episode of Season 2 was when Geraghty and the Probie, characters mostly played for laughs in the kitchen scenes, attempt to comfort Tommy’s youngest daughter by telling her she will see her brother again in Heaven. The girl does not take the sincerely, but ineptly, offered solace and tells the guys “There’s no Heaven, just dirt,” which occasions in Geraghty a surprisingly touching spiritual crisis, surprising because until that episode, he was known primarily for the way his latest haircut spotlighted his resemblance to a monkey. “I used to believe,” he says, “that if you were good you went to Heaven, and if you were bad, you went ... the other way. And if you were an innocent, like a baby who choked on something, you went to Limbo. And then, you guys cancelled Limbo ... remember Limbo?” Not being Catholic, I grew up without Limbo, but I could hear in the character’s voice the sense of loss he feels for the simple realities and moral questions of childhood, and in that sense, post-9/11, we’re all living in a world with different rules than the ones we were taught as little children, whatever our background. Stone’s film doesn’t attempt to acknowledge this, although, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I’m not sure how clear this was to anyone. I especially liked the scenes reflecting the world’s attempt to share the United States’ grief and I had occasion to wish those in power had made an effort to keep us in their hearts, instead of their crosshairs.

Tommy Gavin, in many ways, is the American anti-hero of the new millennium, a perfect brawling, cussing stand-in for a nation discovering that kicking ass might just create more problems than it solves, who might, in the name of freedom, have to survive seeing his children influenced by things he wouldn’t choose, and who is going to have to start being honest with itself if it wants a shot at being the decent nation the people that love it feel it could be, way down deep. Tommy has a drinking problem; America has a power problem. Can either of them be saved? They both struggle and relapse, but I wouldn’t count either out yet.

They are both survivors.