This story is one of 3000 which could be told about that fateful day in the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001. The film is an adaptation of the book of the same name written by Jonathan Safran Foer in 2005. Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) was the only son of Tom (Tom Hanks) and Linda Schell (Sandra Bullock) and was extremely close to his father. One day when they were in the park, Tom showed Oskar the very swing he would ride on when he was a boy. They played a game called Reconnaissance Expedition in which Tom would give Oskar clues toward the answer to an unusual problem. Their latest was, according to Tom, the existence of the 6th borough of New York City which Oskar was supposed to prove.
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Twin Towers, New York City - Wikimedia
Oskar was nine years old, brilliant for his age, but rather a loner, living with his parents in a high-rise apartment, seemingly not engaged with his classmates of his own age. Both of his parents worked and he was left alone at times to fend for himself. His father, Tom, was a jeweler who would like to have been a scientist, so his interaction with Oskar filled his need to explore undiscovered worlds. He had told Oskar that when he himself was a small boy, his father just walked out, not feeling capable of handling family life.
Oskar Finds the Key
Oskar lost his father who was attending a meeting at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. A year later, he had not gone into his Dad’s closet since what he called “the worst day.” His mother, Linda, had not touched Tom’s stuff either. It was all there. Alone one afternoon, he looked in his Dad’s closet and a blue vase fell down from a shelf and broke. A small envelope was in the vase, containing a key, and the word “black” was written on the envelope.
Oskar Begins His Search
Oskar took the key to a locksmith who told him it was a very old key and probably some kind of lockbox. Oskar made frequent phone calls to his grandmother who lived across the courtyard in another building. He could see her from his room and would send flashlight signals to her when he wanted to talk. Oskar asked her if she knew of any special key that his father owned. She did not. She was busy now with a new renter who had moved into her place on the day after “the worst day.”
Tom Hanks - Wikimedia
Oskar Heard the Messages on 9/11
In flashbacks, it is revealed that Oskar was home alone on September 11th and the answering machine revealed six messages from his father that day. Oskar never picked up the phone for any of the messages. He learned how bad the situation was when his mother came home from work after not being able to contact Tom.
Stan the Doorman
Oskar had a special relationship with Stan (John Goodman), the doorman of his building. They did not like each other and even swore at each other. If Stan asked Oskar why he wasn’t in school that day, Oskar would say it was Martin Luther King Day or Patriot’s Day. When Stan contradicted him, Oskar answered that they had changed the day.
Oskar Visits Abby Black
Oskar put together a backpack of things he would need for his latest Reconnaissance Expedition. He had to contact every person with the name of Black who lived in the five boroughs of New York City. He told his mother that he was going to a Comic Book Convention. The first person he visited was Abby Black (Viola Davis) in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Abby appeared to have been crying, but when Oskar pleaded that he was extremely thirsty, she let him in. She did not know Thomas Schell or anything about his key. Her husband came from another room. He knew nothing also. He was there to get his belongings since he was leaving Abby, which was the reason she was crying. Oskar took her picture which he planned to do for every person he visited with the name of Black.
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Sandra Bullock - Wikimedia Attribution: Angela George
Oskar Substitutes the Answering Machine
Oskar slipped out one evening to go downtown to make a purchase. It was an answering machine, a duplicate of the one that had his father’s messages from 9/11 which Linda had never heard. He substituted the new machine and kept the old one in his room. His grandmother stopped over to check on him and discovered him under his bed, a place that he frequented since he lost his father.
Oscar Visits People Named Black
His search revealed nothing even though he planned a six-minute talk with each person. It usually took more than six minutes because the people wanted to comfort him and to tell him their own stories.
Both Oskar and his mother Linda mourned their loss, but Oskar became hostile toward his mother and told her that he wished that she had died in the building instead of his father. She answered “So do I.” He apologized after his outburst.
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Max von Sydow - Wikimedia Attribution: Georges Biard
One day, Oskar went over to visit his grandmother who was not at home, but he was confronted by “the renter,” an elderly man who did not speak but had to write what he had to say on a piece of paper. Oskar told the renter (Max Von Sydow) about his Reconnaissance Expedition and the reason for it. The renter wanted to go along on the next Saturday. Oskar said that for the first time since his Dad died, he felt like he had someone to talk to. He had several phobias such as not wanting to cross a bridge or ride on the train. The renter helped Oskar to get over his fears by saying “If you cross the bridge, I’ll tell you my story.” They saw 37 more Blacks.
Oskar Confides in the Renter
Oskar brought the renter back to his house to have him listen to the answering machine with his Dad’s messages from “the worst day.” He told the renter that he was the only one who heard the messages. He had never told anyone that he couldn’t pick it up that day. His father needed him and he couldn’t pick it up. The renter kept saying “No more.” They didn’t listen to the sixth and last message, and the renter insisted that there could be no more searching.
Oskar Always Knew
Oskar noticed that the renter walked liked his father did, and shrugged the way his father did. He liked that. He told the renter “I always knew you were my grandfather.” He went under his bed again.
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Viola Black - Wikimedia Attribution: Chrisa Hickey
A Call From Abby Black
Out of the blue, Oskar got a phone call from Abby Black. She said she would take him to see her husband at work. Oskar explained to William Black about the key for which he was searching for a lock. William said “Did you find it in a blue vase?” He said that his father passed away two years ago and he had an estate sale of all of his father’s belongings. The blue vase was there by mistake and Oskar’s father had purchased it for his wife. The key was for a safe deposit box at the bank. Oskar gave William the key.
There is a bit of a surprise ending which I will reveal here. Linda knew exactly what Oskar was doing when she found his Reconnaissance Expedition folder. In spite of her own sorrow, she knew every minute where her son was. She called the people on his list and told them that he would be coming. That is why they were so consoling towards him. Another happy ending showed Abby and William together; apparently they had reconciled.
Oskar Revisits the Park
In the last few scenes, Oskar went to the park and took a ride on the swing his father used. He turned over the seat and there was a note for Oskar from his father. It said "Congratulations! You have proven the existence of the 6th borough."