The most powerful statement made at last Friday's all-star telethon, "America: A Tribute to Heroes," was unspoken and unsung. Simulcast by more than 35 networks and cable outlets and 8000 radio stations, the two-hour program quietly provided 89 million viewers with a definition of heroism based solely on saving lives. Those celebrated were firefighters and rescue workers, teachers who shepherded their students to safety, strangers who carried a wheelchair-bound woman down endless flights of stairs, and the man who perished with a paraplegic friend rather than abandon him. No calls for retribution; no "smoking" anyone "out of their holes." While Washington, D.C., geared up for war, Hollywood found another way to be patriotic.
We had not seen the stars in a while; the horrific spectacle of the burning towers momentarily suspended our fascination with celebrity. Hundreds of tiny photos of the murdered and missing squeezed out large airbrushed glossies of George Clooney and Julia Roberts. Brutally interrupted, the lives of ordinary people suddenly seemed more remarkable.
The stars came back tentatively, their famous faces obscured at first in shadows. Then soft lights revealed pained looks as they read the stories of everyday heroes, sometimes shakily, off cue cards. But we were thrilled with their return. The camera caught dressed-down idols gamely working the phone bank. Brad Pitt might answer if you call to pledge! And look: Tom Cruise is sitting next to Penelope Cruz! They've put their rumored love affair on hold to take your call.
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"We are not heroes," read Tom Hanks. "We are not protectors of this great nation. We are merely artists, entertainers, here to raise spirits and, we hope, a great deal of money." (Early reports place the amount of money raised for the families of victims at $80 million dollars.)
Regular guy Hanks, whose characters have a comforting habit of healing our nation's wounds, was joined by Will Smith, the Independence Day hero who everyone half-hoped would appear at the Pentagon and the WTC to beat back this real-life alien attack. Smith accompanied Muhammad Ali, the man who still rivals Osama bin Laden as the world's most famous Muslim. The champ's confident cadence could be heard through his Parkinson's, challenging the terrorists who would defame his faith: "If I could, I'd do something about it." At the close of the show, Clint Eastwood almost voiced the veiled threat when he declared, "The terrorists who wanted 300 million victims are instead going to get 300 million heroes," the phrase "Go ahead, make my day" ringing in everyone's ears.
Yet even these moments suggested dignity rather than blood thirst. "A Tribute to Heroes" went against the grain of the rock 'em, sock 'em, shoot-'em-up justice our president understands best. Bruce Springsteen, whose patriotism has always championed the survival of the common man rather than the grand delusions of Old Glory, opened with "City of Ruins" -- an unreleased song originally written to inspire those left out of our nation's quickly fading economic prosperity.
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The most glittering symbols of that prosperity -- the Britneys and boy bands whose manic newness and digital enhancements kept pace with the dot-com economy -- did not have a place here. Producer Joel Gallen (whose credits include the Academy Awards preshow, VH1 Fashion Awards, MTV Movie Awards, MTV Music Video Awards, and, most significantly MTV Unplugged) eliminated the trappings of stardom. Instead Stevie Wonder set a gospel mood that was echoed by Alicia Keys, Sting, Wyclef, and even Jon Bon Jovi and Fred Durst.
Our celebrity culture threatened to overwhelm the carefully cultivated solemnity of the occasion only when Enrique Iglesias made the rather incongruous promise to be his lover's sexual hero and when Mariah Carey's health could not help but distract from her more democratic observation that "the hero lies in you." ("She made it through without incident," applauded one reviewer.)
Those performers no longer current in our youth-obsessed pop culture had the most impact. The old hippie Neil Young, cowboy hat pulled over his gray hair, sang John Lennon's "Imagine" like a prayer learned in childhood, whose power is only recalled at times of crisis. His voice as searching as it was during his days in the counterculture, he turned Lennon's questions back on himself. "I wonder if I can," he improvised, asking not only himself but the American people as a whole if we can join together to achieve peace, when the victims of war are not foreign faces on our television screens but our neighbors and friends.
Then the ancient Willie Nelson closed the show with "America the Beautiful," extreme closeups revealing the lines on his face as jagged and deep as the crags of the "purple mountain majesties" to which he sang. Although the telethon roster boasted more than enough divas to tackle the perilous highs and lows of our warlike national anthem, the tribute ended with a homage not to the might but to the beauty of our country: "O beautiful for heroes proved/In liberating strife/Who more than self the country loved/And mercy more than life!"