True heroism is forged in the crucible of calamity, and few non-fiction stories prove that point more conclusively than that of Welles Remy Crowther, a young man from Nyack, N.Y., who perished in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks after shepherding numerous others to safety. His inspiring tale is recounted by Matthew J. Weiss’ documentary “Man in Red Bandana,” which despite its frustratingly crude formal construction proves an equally sorrowful and stirring portrait of selflessness in the face of tragedy. Narrated by Gwyneth Paltrow, the film’s lack of polish will make it a tough theatrical sell, but its home-video shelf life should be considerably longer.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Crowther was working on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower as an equities trader at Sandler O’Neil & Partners. Having grown up idolizing his father Jefferson, a career firefighter, he wasted no time springing into action when catastrophe struck. Covering his face with the red bandana he always carried with him (his dad kept an identical blue one), Crowther descended to the 78th floor’s Sky Lobby, where United Airlines Flight 175 had hit the building, and where many were now trapped. Although everyone facing similar circumstances in the North Tower would perish, Crowther found the sole stairwell that allowed for safe passage down to the levels below, and he eventually aided the successful escape of 10 people located at or above the South Tower’s blast line.
Crowther returned to the Sky Lobby at least three times to save strangers — a masked figure emerging from the dust and debris like some sort of guardian angel. In the aftermath of the attacks, his identity remained a mystery until his parents read reports about a “man in the red bandana” in the New York Times and immediately knew it to be Crowther. His legend quickly grew, replete with honors in numerous domestic memorials, as well as mentions by President Obama at the 2014 dedication ceremony for the National Sept. 11 Memorial & Museum, where Crowther’s mother spoke alongside one of those he rescued (Ling Young). His bandana would soon come to symbolize altruistic bravery, and for his fearless work assisting his fellow firefighters — to the point that he ultimately perished in the South Tower lobby while preparing to go back upstairs with them — he became the first posthumously inducted member of the New York City Fire Dept.
“Man in Red Bandana” is invaluable as a tribute to an everyday American man who, at the age of 24, indisputably earned the moniker “hero” — which is why its generally lackluster quality proves so frustrating. Weiss’ substantial archival footage and chats, as well as new interviews, provides a comprehensive overview of his subject’s life, and his animated sequences clearly lay out the logistical circumstances confronted by Crowther on 9/11. Still, so much of the material on hand is of a shoddy analog quality, and so much of it is crudely edited together, that the documentary often feels VHS-grade second-rate.
For a saga about composure and decisiveness under pressure, such aesthetic roughness seems thoroughly inapt. Crowther’s courage and sacrifice deserves lionization, and comes shining through in “Man with Red Bandana,” but there’s no shaking the feeling that he also merits a more elegant cinematic celebration.