In a matter of seconds, tons of steel, concrete, and office equipment were reduced to dust. Among this horror, 343 firefighters lost their lives.
The most heart-wrenching story in this 9/11 documentary belongs to rookie fireman Tommy Casatelli from Engine Company 226. He wasn't feeling well on that fateful day, and asked to switch places with fellow firefighter Brian McAleese. Casatelli drove the engine to the World Trade Center after the first plane hit and, as a result, he didn't go into the building. McAleese went in instead and, along with three other men from the 226, never came out. Casatelli's sit-down interview for the documentary is riddled with survivor's guilt, though the man is never self-pitying. He talks frankly about how the job of the driver is to stay with the engine and how, left alone in the midst of a disaster well beyond his comprehension or experience, he struggled to decide whether to follow his orders or gear up and enter the building. One can see how his decision to follow orders—not out of cowardice, but out of duty—haunts him, as does the decision to switch places with Brian McAleese. The validation and assurances of McAleese's mother, widow, and brother John, a fireman from Engine Company 219, have brought Casatelli little comfort. His story is a reminder that, for some, the horror of that day hasn't receded with the passage of time.
Brothers…On Holy Ground is the work of Mike Lennon, a retired New York City fireman who'd explored his interest in filmmaking by taking some classes at New School University. This documentary was an act of catharsis for him. Lennon sat down with over a dozen firefighters, a dispatcher, a few Manhattan residents, and a handful of 9/11 widows. With utter simplicity, the piece unfurls in static shots as each of the participants telling his or her story, the tales carefully and artfully intercut. The connections between the stories of John McAleese and Tommy Casatelli, for instance, only come into focus late in the film because Lennon uses no artifice to ensure we understand from the outset that Brian and John were brothers. That fact only emerges as John's and Tommy's stories merge near the end, a seemingly simple feat achieved with rigorous and intelligent editing. It's an effect that heightens the emotional power of the tales and emphasizes the brotherhood of the FDNY more than any explanation ever could. Former New York Daily News columnist Pete Hamill provides narration, but it's sparse and never gets in the way of the powerful first person accounts. What makes the documentary remarkable is the candidness of its interviewees (a result of Mike Lennon being a fireman, no doubt), coupled with their resilience in the midst of intense agony. This is not a weepy affair. Even Donna Hickey and Frances Santore, both of whom lost their husbands, exude a stoic pride and confidence in the nobility of the men's deaths that's as admirable as it is difficult to understand from the outside. (Ironically, John Santore had been interviewed by Lennon in 1999, and pieces of that footage also appear in the film.) What Brothers delivers with a clarity unseen in other 9/11 documentaries is insight into how singular a group of people firefighters are, and how incredibly they responded that day to a situation none of them could have anticipated.
The picture was shot on video and source limitations are apparent. The image is relatively flat, and the occasional artifact rears its ugly head just as one would imagine. Colors are accurate and fully saturated, though, and the overall effect is of high-quality, well-preserved videotape. In other words, the source itself has been treated well in this full screen transfer. The 5.1 audio seems like overkill considering the piece is almost entirely low-key dialogue, but, hey, far be it from me to ever complain about a crystal-clear surround track.
Extras include a small gallery of haunting yet beautiful still images of Ground Zero; a two-and-a-half minute introduction to the film by Rogue Arts' Ron Gilbert, who provides background information on Mike Lennon and the genesis of the film; and a Vanguard trailer reel.
Brothers…On Holy Ground is a clinic in the power of simplicity, a 54-minute picture that packs a wallop. Don't miss it.
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