The city of Gander sits on the northwest side of Newfoundland. It has one Walmart, a two-person police department and moose-related traffic jams. It may be only 1,500 miles away from New York City, but in some ways it’s about as far from the Big Apple as you can get.
But on 9/11, the two communities drew closer than you could ever imagine.
Fewer than 10,000 people called Gander home in 2001, but it had a ludicrously oversized airport. Built as a refueling stop, the Gander International Airport was one of the busiest in the world for decades. As planes got bigger, their fuel tanks got bigger, too. No need to stop, and Gander reverted back to a place in the middle of nowhere.
But on Sept. 11, disaster shuts down American airspace. Suddenly dozens of planes are diverted to Gander—38 in all. And on those planes ride nearly 7,000 confused, frightened, hungry, tired passengers.
You wouldn’t think that the role one town played in a global tragedy would be the stuff of musicals. You don’t sing and dance about catastrophe. Do you?
But the movie Come From Away—a straight-from-stage filming of the Broadway musical—just might change your mind on that.
Forget Marvel for a moment. Ignore DC. Here, heroes—real heroes—come from Newfoundland.
Come From Away musically documents a few remarkable days on that Canadian island, when the people of Gander and surrounding communities came together to welcome and care for thousands of unexpected guests. Residents donated food, clothes, spare rooms and a great deal of goodwill in the midst of one of the most stressful situations you can imagine. Some went days without sleep.
The stories pile up like plush animals at a toy drive, and there are too many to document here. But here are a couple of them.
Beulah, head of a school that becomes a refuge for 700 stranded travelers, must coordinate a dizzying number of tasks, from massive meals to figuring out where everyone’s going to sleep. But we also see her interact on a more personal level with many travelers—especially Hannah, a worried mom whose son is a New York fireman. Hannah leaves messages on her boy’s answering machine until it fills up. She waits by the phone for days, hungering for any bit of news on his safety. She’s so anxious that when Beulah first tries to help, she angrily rejects it. But as time goes on, Beulah becomes a source of strength and comfort—telling Hannah terrible jokes and praying by her side.
As tensions grow on the island, the mayor of a nearby town decides to throw a cookout. So he asks one of the passengers (who’s staying in his guest room) to round up some barbecue grills. “Just go to people’s yards and take their grills,” the mayor tells him. The man was pretty sure he was going to get shot. Instead, “I get offered a cup of tea in every backyard.”
The folks of Gander refused any money when their “come from away” guests were finally able to leave. But passengers gave them some after the fact anyway. They started a scholarship fund that has grown to $1 million, and Gander residents report that cards and gifts flooded into the town for weeks and months and even years after.
As Hannah worries over her son, she asks Beulah where the town’s Catholic parish is. Beulah doesn’t just tell her: She goes with Hannah, where they both light candles and pray.
It’s not the sole representation of faith here. Indeed, a sense of spirituality pervades the movie, and religion even gets its own musical number. The song begins with the hymn “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” sung by someone who admits he hadn’t been to church in a very long time. But while the number begins and ends focused on the hymn, it becomes an interfaith medley, with a Jewish man singing in Hebrew, two Hindis adding their own music and a Muslim man silently praying toward Mecca.
Come From Away stresses the multifaith character of these new visitors—some of which came from far-flung parts of the globe. An Orthodox Jewish resident of Gander sets up a kosher kitchen for fellow observant Jews, but he finds the place becomes a haven for diners who eschew meat for religious reasons—including Muslims, Hindus and “a couple of vegetarians.” He winds up being a confidante to a Jewish passenger, too. The passenger grew up in Poland (likely during or shortly after World War II), and his mother told him to never tell anyone he was Jewish—not even his wife. The man confesses, though, that given the events over the last few days, he feels the need to tell someone; to not let that part of his story die with him.
A Muslim man becomes a figure of suspicion in Gander—not so much by the residents as by his fellow passengers. He’s the subject of a fight when someone worries that he’s gloating over the terrorist attack or phoning information to terrorist leaders. And when people stare at him as he prays, an organizer offers him the use of a school library—a place where anyone can pray in peace. The Muslim offers to help with the meals, too—an offer that organizers reject until they learn he’s an internationally known chef.
A bus driver and his African passengers find themselves at a linguistic impasse. And when the Africans see Salvation Army volunteers, all decked out in their uniforms, at a shelter, the Africans (thinking they’re soldiers) refuse to get out of the bus. But the driver notices an African woman holding a Bible. He can’t read it, of course, but he knows a verse. He looks up Philippians 4:6 and points to it: “Be anxious about nothing,” the verse says, and the Africans—comforted—agree to go to the waiting volunteers. “That’s how we started speaking the same language,” the driver tells us.
We hear that the local Baptist church is looking for help to move pews (to clear a way for temporary beds). We hear references to the Salvation Army, and someone wonders whether it’s a Christian denomination of its own. We hear plenty of grateful (if informal) praises to God. When the president of the United States calls for a moment of silence, a passenger marvels that Newfoundlanders—citizens of an entirely different country, of course—solemnly observed that moment even in a bustling gas station. He doubts whether Americans would do the same for a Canadian tragedy.
Come From Away focuses primarily on a handful of passengers, including a gay couple (both partners are named Kevin). They admit that they were worried about revealing their relationship at first. (“You don’t know how redneck people can be,” one says.) But when the truth slips out at a bar, they realize that everyone there knows someone who’s LGBT. Kevin marvels that they found the “gayest town in Newfoundland.” And when his partner says that there must be something in the water, a local quips, “That’s why I only drink the beer.”
The gay men also work with each other, and one describes himself as the other’s “sexy-tary.” Another couple (this one made up of a man and woman) falls in love during their stay in Gander; the two kiss on occasion and wind up making out in the back of the plane on the return trip. We later learn that they married and honeymooned in Newfoundland.
Two women lift up their shirts and flash the audience their bras (mimicking what stranded passengers did on a still locked-down plane after they’d had too much to drink). A half-dozen cardiologists perform a satirical stripper-like dance (complete with suggestive pelvic thrust) as a narrator mentions that they volunteered to clean some very dirty school restrooms. Beulah tells Hannah a slightly dirty joke. A school teacher is smitten with an airline pilot. She recounts their conversations (a little inaccurately, it’s suggested), and his dialogue is speckled with some double entendres.
We hear that some guests, after drinking a bit too much, took to “swimming in the river out back. And no, no one brought their swimsuits.” A local custom for becoming an honorary Newfoundlander involves kissing a fish. (Several do just that.)
An Islamic man is subjected to an invasive body search; he tells the audience that, for a Muslim, the region between the stomach and the knees shouldn’t be seen by anyone but the Muslim’s wife. In his case, a female airline captain witnessed the search. “To have a woman watching this—watching me—you can’t understand it,” the man tells the audience.
The events of 9/11 obviously ended the lives of thousands of people, and we hear about some of those who were lost. Gander’s mayor tells residents that so many planes have been rerouted to them because “If anything goes wrong, we have a lot less people to lose.” And passengers—before being told about the terrorist attacks—speculate wildly. One man hears that the White House was bombed. Another thinks it’s got to be “World War III.”
That said, we don’t actually see any violence in Come From Away; the one “fight” that we hear about seems to be a verbal skirmish, not a physical one.
One f-word is censored in this Apple TV+ movie, and we hear one or two f-word stand-ins (such as “friggin’”). The s-words here—three or four of them—are uncensored, as are other profanities such as “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” Pairing Jesus’ name with the letter H seems to be one of the expletives of choice in Newfoundland, and we also hear people derisively say “Jesus in the garden.” God’s name is also misused at least seven times.
There’s a whole lotta drinking going on over the course of these four or five days.
It begins on the airplanes themselves. Unable to disembark for, in some cases, 28 hours, the flight crews decide to open up the on-board liquor cabinets. Most folks get “hammered,” and a few (as mentioned above) flash passers-by.
The passengers eventually disembark. But after a few days on the ground with air travel still restricted, guests get stressed out and angry. The solution, again, seems to be liquor. They’re invited to a bar filled with Irish dancing and karaoke, and eventually a few become honorary Newfoundlanders by drinking a shot of “Screech” (“bad Jamaican rum,” someone tells us) and kissing a fish. One traveler says she’d never had more than one beer at a time before this: She drinks two this evening and tells the gentleman accompanying her that she’d like to get married. They both admit it was probably “the alcohol talking,” but the gent gets them both a couple more beers. (Someone also notes that the bar staff has to keep making alcohol runs throughout the evening.)
The guest at someone’s house admits that he drank most of the home’s Irish whiskey (which was just fine with the owner). A passenger offers a panicky woman some Xanax. We hear a couple of references to medication and nicotine patches.
We hear about a chimpanzee that flings his own feces. People discuss very dirty restrooms. A pilot recounts her first professional gig chauffeuring dead bodies—and how she’d have to crawl over the dead’s faces to get to her pilot’s seat. (But at least they never complained, she adds.) A Gander resident makes a run to a store to pick up lots of feminine hygiene products for the city’s guests. A news reporter asks that people “stop bringing toilet paper to the Lion’s Club.”
Filmed in May of 2021 before a small, masked Broadway audience and released on September 10—just a day before 9/11’s 20th anniversary—Come From Away feels, much like Gander, a world away from us.
Sure, we see some similarities between the environment then and now. Both crises feature(d) a whole bunch of grief and stress. But if 9/11 was a punch in the gut, COVID feels like a lingering illness with no real resolution. And that drawn-out sense of uncertainty and misery hasn’t been very good for even those of us who haven’t gotten sick. Mental illness is soaring. We fight over vaccines and masks. We’re sick of this sickness, and it shows.
Maybe that’s why Come From Away feels like such a timely, feel-good story: a musical about people coming together and caring for each other in a real, very personal way. Or maybe the musical would always feel like a warm smile; maybe the values it offers—of kindness, of hospitality, of going above and beyond for those who need it—are truly timeless.
It’s literally impossible to grab a germ. It’s hard to wrestle with an ever-changing pandemic. But to care for a stranger? To feed someone who’s hungry? Comfort someone who’s alone? Those are kindnesses we can give. And, according to Jesus, we should give them.
Apple TV+’s straight-from-stage musical comes with problems, of course. Parents should be mindful of the show’s language, sexual suggestions and surprising focus on drinking.
But while we shouldn’t ignore what the movie gets wrong, it gets an awful lot right, too. And as we try to grasp what it means to be Jesus’ hands and feet, and as we teach our children the same, Come From Away offers a pretty good template for what unselfish care looks like. Here, service takes center stage. Kindness wins the day.
And how often can you say that about a movie?
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.