MANHATTAN — Tom Hanks' controversial new 9/11 movie "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" received a thumbs-up from a former NYPD detective commander whose brother-in-law died in the attacks on the World Trade Center — and he does not believe the movie is at all a case of Hollywood exploitation.
In fact, retired Det. Sgt. Kevin Campbell thinks the film, which opened Friday after limited release in December and drew warnings about flashbacks, is an important one that finally portrays the complex challenges faced by families who lost loved ones on that fateful day more than a decade ago.
“This movie shows you that there were a lot more victims that day than the nearly 3,000 people who died,” said Campbell, a former Bronx detective squad commander who became a key aide to former NYPD Deputy Commissioner for Operations Garry McCarthy, now Chicago's police superintendent.
“Keeping that in front of the public eye is long overdue,” added Campbell, who spent months working in the morgue after 9/11.
That does not mean he is an outspoken survivor seen publicly calling for attention to the horrific attack and its aftermath. Actually, he is a thoughtful, soft-spoken man of few words.
Since 9/11 there have been a raft of award-winning movies, television shows and documentaries about first responders, hero soldiers fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network.
They are important tales, of course, but none of the scarred 9/11 families and their unfathomable pain, which seemed to be taboo for filmmakers, have been portrayed like this.
“Perhaps it took 10 years before anyone could try,” said Campbell, who did not go lightly to watch the film with me at its opening day at the Main St. Cinema in Queens.
The burly ex-cop knew there would be painful moments — images of falling bodies, battles among family members, visuals of the Twin Towers being struck — that would revive memories and draw tears.
“We always get upset seeing the buildings getting attacked on television during news reports and other shows, because it takes you back to that moment when you realize that everyone was still alive,” he said.
“It is still disturbing, and when it comes on I tend to change the channel.”
On 9/11, Campbell’s brother-in-law, John Gallagher, was a 31-year-old energy trader for Cantor Fitzgerald working on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center, which turned out to be the exact floor where Tom Hanks becomes trapped in the film.
Gallagher was a younger brother of Campbell’s wife, Therese. He grew up in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx and attended St. Raymond’s High School, eventually graduating from Manhattan College.
On Sept. 8, 2000, Gallagher married his sweetheart, Francine. The couple celebrated their first anniversary just three days before 9/11. And they had a six-week old son, James.
On the weekend before 9/11, the Gallaghers attended a wedding with four other young couples with whom they were friends. Two of the husbands were New York City firemen, Michael Lynch and Dennis Mulligan. Like Gallagher, they too did not survive.
Campbell recalled working on 9/11 when the Towers were hit. He was wrapping up his night at the 47th Precinct Detective Squad around 8:30 a.m., when there was word of a helicopter or small plane hitting the North Tower. His instincts told him, “No way on a such a beautiful day."
Then, a second jet roared into the South Tower.
“Everyone just froze and you knew we were under attack,” he said.
Just like in the movie, everyone started phoning friends and family to find out what occurred and whether their loved ones were OK.
“We were hoping John had come down a stairwell, which was supposed to be fire retardant," Campbell recalled.
Campbell said he sped off to get his wife, who was a teacher's aide at a public school. He took her to her brother’s home, where she joined Francine, and then headed back to the precinct and eventually to Manhattan as everyone was fleeing.
”It was eerie driving back, because all the traffic was going north,” he remembered.
Campbell was told to go home and sleep because they needed rested men the following day. “I said f--- them and went down on my own.”
When he got down to Ground Zero, the enormity of the disaster hit him while looking at the smoldering pile. The following day, he was assigned to the city morgue on First Avenue and 31st Street for months. Like the city's doctors, nurses, hospital staff and emergency paradmedics, workers at the morgue braced for an onslaught of casualties.
But the wave never came.
In the film, the character played by Hanks makes numerous calls to his wife and son, leaving messages for them.
Campbell’s brother in law was not so lucky.
Watching those scenes and listening to the calls was tough for Campbell, who could be seen wiping a few tears from his eyes on several occassions.
“The calls were disturbing — hearing the chaos in the background and then hearing [Hanks] having difficulty breathing,” Campbell said. “There are just personal things that come back.”
Campbell, who is presently the security director at New York Hospital Queens, said it took weeks before his family finally came to accept their loved one’s fate.
During that uncertain time, there was stress, many difficult moments and squabbling between family members.
“That was real,” Campbell said. “For awhile after 9/11, no one knew what to do. There were tough times. That’s not Hollywood. That happens.”
The opening scene features the funeral of the character played by Tom Hanks. His angry son starts yelling at his mother, beautifully played by Sandra Bullock, for burying an empty box. He claims the service is a charade.
The scene hit hard for Campbell, who couldn't hold back the tears while watching. His brother-in-law’s funeral was about six months after 9/11, when several of his bones were recovered from the rubble.
Although Gallagher was as large a man as Campbell, who stands 6-foot-2 with a linebacker’s frame, his wooden coffin was barely the size of shoebox.
The film, which follows the boy as he embarks on a quest to find meaning after his father's death, provided other emotionally charged moments for Campbell.
The recurring hostility between son and grieving mother captured another reality for him. “My daughter, Erin, was 7 years old, and [daughter] Shannon was 10 on 9/11," he said, "and for days they were left with family and friends, and I know they felt abandoned.
“My wife was a mess, of course. Her brother was missing, and I was not home working,” he continued. “You think the children will get over it. But it was hard. We had lots of tough nights. We still do.
“But the movie helps keep the family in the forefront, and renews the focus on them,” the ex-NYPD official added. “And I think that is great, because people are getting relaxed and forgetting that there are still plenty of people plotting to get us."
As for the movie itself, would Campbell recommend it to people whether they lost someone on 9/11 or not?
“Absolutely. I thought it was a very good story, very well acted,” he said. “This was not a silly movie, or exploitative. It was a good film, with interesting twists.”
While Campbell's sister-in-law, Francine, is not interested in seeing the movie, his wife, Therese, is.
And he will go with her to see it for a second time, he said.