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The Independent Critic

Carl Keyes, Bob Appleby, Lee Ielpi, John Picarello, Debra Burlingame
Andrew & Jon Erwin
53 Mins.
 "The Cross and the Towers" Review 
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It has been five years since 9/11.

Five years.

We've journeyed through several documentaries on the subject, a couple feature films and countless books dealing with the subject of 9/11.

What's amazing is that five years later it still feels fresh every single time one watches those towers fall.

It leaves you breathless...makes you physically ache.

I'm not sure the world really needs "The Cross and the Towers," the latest documentary on the subject of 9/11 offered by the Erwin Brothers, Andrew and Jon.

Yet, somehow, "The Cross and the Towers" does have its own special place among the documentaries that have attempted to capture, on some level, the emotional, physical and spiritual devastation of 9/11. On a certain level, "The Cross and the Towers" is the "hopeful" documentary. It vividly captures the real-life journeys of 9/11 survivors through the anger, the grief, the loss and through to the hope that somehow shined through.

There's Carl Keyes, a pastor who served as a chaplain onsite for relief workers along with Bob Appleby, a former marine who served in the same capacity. There's FDNY's Lee Ielpi and John Picarello. There's Debra Burlingame, the sister of the Flight 77 pilot, and there's retired NYPD officer Mike Martelli.

In "The Cross and the Towers," the stories aren't so much about that day anymore, though their stories will always be impacted by the events of 9/11. Instead, these individuals share their stories of hope in the midst of recovery and resolution of the most painful kind.

It is, in essence, a way of showing that humanity's essence is one of survival and, while 9/11 may forever shape their futures, it will not determine them.

As refreshing an approach as this is to the stories of 9/11, one can't help but have become a bit weary of the constant imagery that always seems to accompany 9/11 documentaries...the towers, the smoke, the screams, the slow motion shots of heroes and, perhaps most irritatingly, the accompanying score that serves to emphasize the gravity of the situation.

The film seems to take at least half of its sparse one-hour playing time in reliving the events of those days, and it feels as if the actual subject of the film, "the cross" that was found onsite, is relegated to a secondary role as we find this hope only after having relived the events of those days once again.

Instead of needing to once again stress the facts that are commonly known, wouldn't it have been a powerful, even more affirming declaration of humanity's resilient spirit to have started the film introducing the cross THEN moving backward through the experiences of these individuals?

"The Cross and the Towers" is going to be a difficult view for those who experienced firsthand, however, it may prove to be a hopeful, cathartic experience for many. While the initial heavyhanded approach feels unnecessary, the Erwin Brothers do exceptionally well when portraying the simple, seemingly mundane acts that often became heroic during the course of recovery efforts in New York City. Bob Appleby, in particular, is mesmerizing as he describes his experiences of attempting to support and console people for whom consolation was nearly impossible.

"The Cross and the Towers" is currently screening during the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis as one of the festival's "Crystal Heart Award" winners. While it sheds little new light and doesn't tread any new territory, it does offer a different spin on the testimonies of individuals we heard about, learned about and cared about as the details of 9/11 unfolded. Their stories are presented here with a quiet sensitivity that often serves as a stark contrast to the overwhelming intensity of 9/11.

The overall message of "The Cross and the Towers" seems quite simple...

There are moments in life that define us.

Then, there are moments in our life that we must refuse to let define us.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic