As is the case with so many tragedies that defy comprehension, there seems to be a limitless supply of stories, many still waiting to be told, about the 9/11 attacks. Out of the Clear Blue Sky emphasizes at the outset that this is only one of them, focusing primarily on the loss of life that took place in the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services firm that occupied the 101st through 105th floors of One World Trade Center and from which none of the 658 employees at work that morning escaped. Through tastefully conducted interviews with CEO Howard Lutnick and several dozen surviving employees and family members (save for the occasional context provided by sparse on-screen text, you wouldn’t even know the filmmakers were there), the film is a testament to human resilience, showing “how broken hearts can heal each other.”
Gardner’s film is almost elliptical in nature, lacking any overt narrative or clear structure. This approach lends the proceedings an intimate, diary-like quality that acutely conveys the trauma experienced by its subjects following the attacks, and what’s most affecting is the recognition of private and public pain and how the barrier between the two was shattered by the extremely public nature of this mass-death spectacle. Trying to save his company so that he might use his assets to provide financial and emotional aid to the survivors of his lost workers (a compulsion influenced by his own experiences following his parent’s deaths), Lutnick gave a series of quickly immortalized television interviews in which he couldn’t help but weep before the news camera.
Out of the Clear Blue Sky doesn’t demonize the people who turned scornful of the now infamous CEO when he was unable to promptly deliver on his promises, their grief understandably blinding them to realities such as the limited functionality of a company without an infrastructure, let alone a human resources department. As we ultimately learn, Gardner understands the nature of grieving all too well, and the film is better for refusing to engage with the anger cultivated by shortsighted media figures like Bill O’Reilly, who’s seen briefly in old FOX clips stoking the Cantor Fitzgerald controversy with his trademark ignorance. In the end, the company narrowly avoided foreclosure, and made good on its promise to dedicate 25% of its profits to the survivors for the next five years, paying for their health care needs for a full decade as well. In telling this story, Out of the Clear Blue Sky presents an ideal recourse for people who must begin their lives anew, and by de-emphasizing politics in favor of humanitarianism, Gardner’s work also suggests how Americans might yet unify even as the world around them threatens to tear itself apart.