The Last Words of Timothy Stackpole, Fireman

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Advertiser: Twin Towers Fund
Agency: Toolbox Advertising, New York
Rating: 3.5

Sometimes the best thing to put into an ad is the understanding that enough, and no more, is just right. Sometimes tragedy furnishes an extraordinary opportunity. Sometimes exploiting that opportunity -- though it turns the notion of "good luck" absolutely inside out -- is not merely not despicable, but the right thing to do.

Meet Timothy Stackpole, firefighter.

He's a nice looking young guy, kind of rugged and sweet with an earnest way of speaking and a sparkle in his eyes. He is, in fact, a New York City fireman, betrayed by his accent and the very fact that we're seeing him on TV. If we're going to watch a TV spot with a firefighter these days, he won't be from Duluth.

'Making a difference'
"I always, I always, even as a child, I wanted to be a fireman," he says. "It's the greatest high you can ever get in life is by helping somebody and by making a difference in life."

There's not much going on here. It's a two-camera shoot, so we see him -- in black and white -- intercut from slightly different angles. The effect, of course, has enabled the spot to be edited in such a way as to make the guy seamlessly lucid, which off-camera more than likely he is not, and to create just enough dynamism to the video.

This is not nothing. Though the whole world is profoundly sympathetic to the Fire Department of New York at the moment, it may not be so sympathetic to endure 60 seconds of static articulation of the admirable but obvious. So this ever-so-slight application of technique achieves precisely what is intended.

Or maybe it's just Stackpole himself, and the quick, self-conscious sidelong glances of a man unaccustomed to having two cameras in his face, mining his unexceptional words for Pride and Inspiration and Heroism. This dude isn't much of a performer. He's a guy trying his hardest not to come off as a bullshitter or a braggart.

'Above the call of duty'
"Anybody can just do their job to the letter of the rules, but it's overextending yourself and doing that little extra above the call of duty that makes the fire department special."

At this stage of the spot, which predictably is a PSA for the Twin Towers Fund, Timothy Stackpole has well served the client. He has said nothing especially eloquent, but his words are -- in the aftermath of indescribable catastrophe -- a poignant iteration of the spirit and dedication of men and women who risk their lives to protect us. In the world beyond Sept. 11, we require neither histrionics nor rhetorical flourishes to be moved. So, all right, Timmy, well done.

And God rest your soul.

The next thing we see in this spot, it turns out, is onscreen text: "Timothy and 428 other rescue workers were lost in the World Trade Center tragedy."

Shot in 1998
The film was shot in 1998. It was done originally for a commercial for New York Presbyterian Hospital's William Randolph Hearst Burn Center, where Timmy Stackpole was a patient following a previous, heroic brush with death. He could have retired with a handsome pension, but he stayed on the job, only to be consumed three years later by terror's inferno. From a human perspective, this was tragedy and freakish bad luck. From an advertising perspective, it was a piece of heartbreaking serendipity.

It's hard to imagine what went on in the hearts and minds of the people at Toolbox Advertising, New York, in reconciling their grief with the joyless thrill of realization: They had the quintessential Twin Towers Fund spokesman a quick re-edit away, the apotheosis of nightmare yielding opportunity.

An opportunity unsquandered, we're relieved to say. The agency could have done a hundred things to deprive this hero of his dignity, and the audience of unextruded emotion. Toolbox did none of those things. What it did was honor a man and a department and the memories of 429 splendid men and women.

Still on the job
His widow can take heart. There is a long list of Sept. 11's living victims, and, for them -- thanks to the sometimes miracle of advertising -- her late husband is still on the job.