A Nation’s Emergency Call


"Where were you when war broke out, Daddy?"

My little girl is too young to recall even a reason for that question, but make no mistake, war — of terror and on terror — broke out on Sept. 11, 2011.

And where we were then — daddy, mommy, daughter, son, Jew, Christian, Muslim — and where we are now traverses a chasm of corrupted values filled with anxiety, hate, distrust and — maybe — hope.

Phillip Rhys remembers well where he was when the Twin Towers fell in an inferno enflamed with violence against American sovereignty and integrity by terrorists flying into the face of reason and sanity.

The acclaimed Brit-born actor was shooting Flatland, notable as the first American TV show to be lensed in Mainland China, when he was in a flat-out argument with his then-girlfriend away from the set. "Mid-anger, we got a phone call to look at the TV," which was filled with the screened smoke of an international apocalypse thousands of miles and worlds away.

That was then; this is now. The seasoned 37-year-old actor inarguably faces the smoke more clearly and at closer perspective: He is cast in an intriguing acclaimed film as a Pakistan emigre and widower whose window on the world of American opportunities has him working two jobs in New York City — including one at the World Trade Center's Windows on the World — to support himself and his gifted son.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he accompanies his 10-year-old off to the airport for the child's flight to Los Angeles, where the youngster has been given a scholarship to attend a special school. Without looking back, the father then hurries off to his job as a restaurant worker at the WTC.

It is all filled in clearly as The Space Between, broadcast on Sunday, Sept. 11, from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., on USA Network, starts its soulful journey across the screen.

The film — starring Oscar winner Melissa Leo as a myopic, disillusioned airline steward who serves as the boy's reluctant shepherd once he lands in Los Angeles — says quite a bit of how the nation has filled the emotional spaces between that fateful day and today.

The country, agrees Rhys, has taken another look at itself in the mirror and found stories with new wrinkles in them, attesting to the nation's maturity. "This film could not have been made five years ago," Rhys reasons of the film, which will be followed by a broadcast ofTwin Towers, the Oscar-winning short documentary.

"We needed to get some distance from our preconceived notions of a religion that was hijacked by fundamentalists," says Rhys, raised Catholic.

"I hope to God we have a better understanding" of Muslims and their religion, one torn asunder by fundamentalists, he avers now.

"Can't we all get along?" is, unquestionably, a theme running throughout The Space Between, and one that pervades much of Hollywood products these days when it comes to the emergency number dialed up by Hollywood on the topic of 9/11.

So much has changed, concedes the talented actor, of how Hollywood shows signs of perspective in dealing with the disaster that turned a nation numb.

Rare, he claims, is anything on the era depicted as black and white, which allows dimensional portraits and better understanding of what makes an enemy tick and ticks it off.

"There will always be the bad guys in movies," and, adds Rhys, rightfully so because there are bad guys who do horrible things to good people.

Which is why he thinks offing one of them was "an important" source of healing for the nation's psyche, he says of the death of Osama bin Laden, "which offered us some sort of closure."

Not that all will be satisfied; some may have a hard time closing the books on the conspiracy theories that put both Israelis and Americans at the hub of the horrible hits on the WTC.

Would Hollywood –in its attempt to monetize the mayhem of Sept. 11 — ever script such a scenario, as outlandish as it may seem? (Some may recall "Capricorn One," the 1978 clinker starring O.J. Simpson, in which the United States was depicted as doing its own "moon walk" — faking the original moon landing, which served as ammunition for the Soviets' assumptions and charges at the time that the mission may have been staged.)

"Those thrive on the Internet and blogs," Rhys says, dismissing the conspiracy theories that even Hollywood wouldn't hype. "For all of Hollywood's shortcomings," he says with a laugh, "they wouldn't touch" such nonsense.

"And for good reason."

Rhys may have reason himself to wonder about the stubborn persistence of stereotypes. With his olive-skinned caste — his father is Indian — the actor has been cast as a Mideasterner and/or terrorist on TV's 24 and BBC's Survivors. At least, he laughs, he was set up as a terrorist in a betrayal by his finagling fiance in 24; he didn't actually play one.

Before 9/11, he had a run of roles playing young musicians. But, look, he says, "I look a certain way," which may mitigate against parts as the all-American hero.

"And I also doubt I can play Scandinavian."

Well, maybe some of the doctors on Nip/Tuck, on which Rhys has starred, can help there.

But what The Space Between can help with is to show that there are no dead spaces between peoples, just room for links of belonging.

"We do all connect," says Rhys. "We have all loved, and all lost."

And now, maybe, see each other for what we all can be between the spaces.


Feting 'Footnotes of 9/11'

USA is one of many networks bringing the tragedy of Sept. 11 to the small screen upon its 10th anniversary. For some, the way we were no longer is just a memory of a Barbra Streisand film, but a personal milestone.

CNN's Footnotes of 9/11 fetes an octet of men and women whose jobs brought them to the edge and ledge of history on that date, including the ticket agents who unknowingly allowed some of the terrorists to board their doomed planes — even when plagued by doubts about their suspicious-looking fares.

This film, one of four on the day to be shown by CNN, serves as a stark reminder that our lives can be changed irrevocably and shifted forever in a matter of inches and seconds, with our very existence determined by X-factors of indiscriminate impact.


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