The reason behind the writing of “The Guys” is what gives this film version of Anne Nelson’s play its power. After the 9/11 tragedy, Jim Simpson, artistic director of the Manhattan Flea Theater (located near the World Trade Center site), commissioned Nelson, who teaches journalism at Columbia University, to write a play based on her experiences helping a NYC fire captain compose eulogies for his fallen comrades. The result understandably struck a nerve in New York audiences, and has proven equally effective in regional and local productions. Simpson has now adapted it for the screen, with his wife Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia (who played the roles on stage) as Anne’s surrogate Joan and Nick, the veteran firefighter who approaches her for aid in shaping his recollections into proper tributes. The result is a graceful, moving tribute to the courage of New York’s finest and a nicely understated expression of the grief shared by the nation at their sacrifice. It’s impossible to watch it without being affected.
It must be said, however, that despite the obvious sincerity of presentation, the piece isn’t quite as suited to the screen as it is to the stage. “The Guys” is the sort of work that benefits from the slight distancing that live theater provides but that film, with its overwhelming closeups, can’t. Thus while Weaver actually gives a subdued, restrained performance, she seems to be trying too hard every time the camera focuses strongly on her patrician, stoic face. The problem isn’t as acute with LaPaglia, whose combination of embarrassed shyness and ursine gruffness is an almost perfect fit for the part. The interplay between the two is excellent, too–no doubt a reflection of their stage turns together.
Technically the picture is solidly, if unexceptionally, made. The use of atmospheric flashbacks as a linking device, however, comes across as a mite obvious.
“The Guys” is, needless to say, a deeply poignant film, but not a depressing one. It isn’t perfect, but in avoiding any crude sentimentalizing of the subject it manages to avoid the most obvious potential failings. And its strengths easily outweigh the minor bkemishes that remain.