The Guys is a small, intimate meditation on grief and loss in the days after September 11, 2001. Set less than two weeks after that fateful day, it relates an encounter between a New York fire captain named Nick and a writer named Joan, who meet to discuss the eulogies Nick has been called on to deliver for a number of his fallen brothers.
The film is based on a stage play of the same name, commissioned in the weeks after 9/11 by the Flea Theater, located a few blocks away from Ground Zero. The play was written by journalist and first-time playwright Anne Nelson, based on her own experiences writing eulogies with a real fire captain.
Sigourney Weaver — who is married to Flea founder Jim Simpson — played Joan in The Flea’s first stagings of The Guys, sometimes opposite Anthony LaPaglia as Nick. Weaver and LaPaglia reprise their roles for this film version, directed by Weaver’s husband Simpson from Nelson’s own adapted screenplay.
Unsurprisingly, the film is true to its theatrical roots: low-key, set mostly within the confines of an upper West Side apartment, centered on the conversation between the fire captain and the writer. In keeping with the minimal production values of the stage play, the film was shot in nine days on a limited budget. Dramatic 9/11 footage, flashbacks of the missing firefighters, even a romance between Nick and Joan were all proposed by Hollywood producers, but the filmmakers rightly sensed that anything like this would have been disastrous.
The Guys is not an entertainment, or even a story, but a simple, direct portrait of grief amid overwhelming circumstances. There’s a transparent honesty to this film, an immediacy and insistence of emotion, that makes clear this is not a product of a calculated decision about the topicality of 9/11 stories. The deliberate lack of artifice makes The Guys a quietly moving experience; given another approach, it could easily have come off as crassly opportunistic or sensational.
The Guys is about its two main characters, but it’s also about four or five men who never appear onscreen: Bill, Jimmy, Patrick, Bernie (and Dave, Bernie’s partner in crime). By the end of the film’s 88-minute running time, we know more about these absent men than we do about the main characters in many another film. The Guys is about remembering the dead, and is itself a sort of eulogy — though we learn more about these fallen firefighters than we would have from the eulogies alone, and also more about the living who remember them.
Nick is clearly uncomfortable coming to Joan’s apartment, and isn’t really ready to talk about his men. He’s still in shock, distracted by details: Eight families, he says, want services for their loved ones, though no bodies have been found; if and when the bodies are found, they may want funerals as well. But 350 firefighters have been lost. "If they all want funerals and services," he frets inconsequentially, "that’ll be 700."
Like many surviving firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, Nick is uncomfortable with all the "hero" language being bandied about him and his men. He doesn’t feel like much of a hero himself, and doesn’t think of his friends that way either. "All this hero stuff, like they were guys in a movie. But Bill wasn’t like that at all." Bill, Nick tells us, was the kind of guy that no one would even notice when he came into the room. "You can’t say that in a eulogy," he mutters.
Slowly, with gentle questions, Joan elicits comments from Nick about each of the four men that provides the substance of the eulogies. The process proves cathartic for both of them, as Nick confronts his grief and survivor guilt and Joan gets to contribute in some small way to the comfort and support of those who lost so much more than she did.
Over the course of the afternoon, as Nick and Joan become more comfortable with one another and their collaborative process, there’s a subtle shift, noticed by neither of them, as scrupulous fidelity to Nick’s memories gives way to slight departures here and there. The first eulogy is taken almost word for word from Nick’s comments; later, Nick notices small inaccuracies creeping in, but decides to let them stay: "It sounds good."
This might have led to a moment in which Nick looks at one of the finished speeches, perhaps at the service itself, and realizes that the essence of the man has been lost. That, despite our best efforts to hold onto the dead, they inevitably slip away from us somehow; the past becomes colored in our memories, then distorted, and eventually starts to fade away.
But no. The hurt is too new, too raw for Nick to be aware of this process. (There was one guy, a new recruit, whose face Nick can’t remember — but who knows if he would have been able to picture his face even on September 10?) The time will come for that, but not in this film.
There are a number of poignant observations about grief and tragedy: The ever-expanding meaning of the words "Are you okay?" — so ubiquitous on and after September 11 — is explored, as is the sheer fact of interactions between people like Nick and Joan who, in a sense, should never have met. A scene in which Joan looks with new eyes at a small group of firemen standing in front of their firehouse, then asks them a few semi-knowledgable questions based on things she’s learned from Nick, is especially touching.
In a shop, a clerk surprises Joan by saying "God bless America" as he makes change. She’s used to hearing God invoked in her native Oklahoma, but not here in New York: "Here, you can’t be sure if people have a God — or, if they do, if it’s the same God, who wants the same things."
What God wants and how we can relate to him is the underlying question in an extended monologue toward the end of the film. Joan has told us how she used to make "deals" with God; now, confronted with such enormity, she asks, "How can you cut deals with God under these conditions?" She knows what she would want to bargain for: "I want them back, all of them. That’s the only thing I’ll settle for." There’s just one problem: she has "nothing to bring to the table."
The Guys doesn’t probe beyond these observations to deeper issues of faith, trust, and redemption; yet it succeeds in taking false options off the table. Realizing that neither cutting such "deals" with God nor "settling" for tragedy and evil is a viable possibility can be a first step toward a genuine relationship with God on his own terms — or at least a step away from superstition and despair.
Some viewers may find The Guys difficult to watch, either because of its frank treatment of painful subject matter or because of its stark conversational format. But those who are’t put off by the film’s austerity will find it more than capable of rewarding them.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.