When left-leaning ideologue Oliver Stone announced he would be directing a 9/11 themed movie called World Trade Center, the jokes came almost too easily. My personal favorite was The Onion’s tongue-in-cheek headline, “New Oliver Stone 9/11 Film Introduces ‘Single Plane’ Theory.’”
It seems Stone understood that moviegoers were not ready for, or even remotely interested in, a controversy-courting, conspiracy-theory version of September 11th. The wound is too fresh for irresponsible filmmakers to start treating the subject recklessly—the biggest danger of Stone, an inveterate loose-cannon, tackling the topic.
Those worries can rest. Without question, this is Stone’s most mainstream effort—a fact that has its upside and downside. Indeed, in a filmmaking career marked by controversy, the most shocking thing about World Trade Center is how little it resembles a typical Oliver Stone film. It is deeply humane, which is unusual for Stone (a director so jaded he somehow managed to make a pair of glamorous-looking mass-murderers the only likable characters in Natural Born Killers), but it is also bland in a TV movie-of-the-week kind of way.
Is it right to turn the fall of the Twin Towers into a summer-movie action sequence?
Stone has made some awful movies in his time—Alexander, for one, was a head-scratching debacle—but of all the things Stone might be accused of, I never thought “blandness” would be one of them. Subsequently, my reaction to World Trade Center is divided: with this film, Stone has discovered his inner idealist and it's a heartening conversion of sorts, but he sadly misplaced his inner artist in the process.
Another thing Stone has never been accused of is subtlety, but this movie doesn’t just tug at the audience’s heartstrings, it yanks. Stone’s sentimental excesses were unnecessary; the story is inspiring enough without his shameless flourishes.
World Trade Center recounts the true story of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) who formed part of the rapid-response team when the first passenger jet hit the tower. The two men, among many others, bravely rushed into the burning building to help evacuate. Before the team even realized a second plane had struck, however, the towers collapsed in a nightmare of smoke, noise, and crumbling walls.
Is it right that the fall of the towers be turned into a summer-movie action sequence? It’s a philosophical question before anything, but if Stone’s answer was “yes” then the question became an artistic one: how best to represent it? One of the unpleasant surprises of WTC is the extent to which Stone’s artistic instincts seem to have abandoned him when he needed them most. His trademark raw, visceral visuals would have been well-suited to the chaos and horror of ground zero. Instead, Stone adopts a plodding, generic style that weighs the movie down with heavy-handed passages any assembly-line Hollywood hotshot might have filmed. (“Michael Bay” is a name that springs to mind, accompanied by a shudder.) As the towers start to crumble, McLoughlin yells, “RUN!!” in a slow-motion moment that resembles nothing so much as Nicolas Cage running from a fireball in Con Air. The effect is disconcerting, as if Stone gave himself a license to mediocrity, secure in the knowledge that the stirring story would generate sufficient power on its own.
Stone had an opportunity to make his greatest film, but fumbled by playing it safe.
After the collapse of the towers, the screen goes black and the story shifts gears. From that point on, the movie splits its running time between McLoughlin and Jimeno trapped beneath the rubble of the towers, and their suffering wives waiting at home in painful suspense for news of their missing husbands. The scenes between Will and John trapped beneath the wreckage are the most successful of the movie, if only because Stone resists the impulse to telegraph the emotions. The actors’ faces are obscured by shadow, caked in dust and grime. They are immobile beneath the crush of debris. Cage and Peña rely solely on their voices and a few fleeting expressions to convey the intensity of their characters’ will to survive. They do so, brilliantly.
Cage is an unpredictable performer, whose eccentricity usually matches that of Stone’s. Like his director, however, he plays his part straight-faced this time and turns in a quietly affecting performance. Pena’s character, Will, is the more dynamic of the two, and he gives his lines an energy and conviction that convince the viewer his character has too much life in him not to outrun the specter of death.
This odd couple is the rarest of movie heroes: men of inaction rather than action who require rescuing instead of rescuing others. They are heroes because of their indomitable desire to live, to return to their families, and because of the initial sacrifice they made when they risked their lives by entering the towers. When Will, as he is being pulled out of the rubble on a stretcher, yells down to his comrade, “I love you, John!” it is one of the few earned moments of heartfelt emotion in the movie.
Unfortunately, the scenes with the suffering wives are where Stone flounders. Maria Bello plays McLoughlin’s wife, Donna, and is given little else to do but stare pensively into the distance as the film stops dead in its track for a series of soft-focus flashbacks accompanied by a tinkling piano. Craig Armstrong’s string-laden soundtrack underlines the emotional moments in these scenes, trivializing instead of elevating them.
Stone was lucky to have actors the caliber of Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal (playing Jimeno’s high-spirited and very pregnant wife) in these parts; they both bring nuances and shading to paper-thin characters that would not be out of place in a made-for-TV soap opera called something like 9/11: The Untold Story.
One hard-hitting scene manages to break through Stone’s superficial gloss. Donna, waiting for her husband in a hospital cafeteria, comforts a woman whose son was an elevator operator in the first tower. Stone lets the camera linger on the two women’s stricken faces. The soundtrack respectfully shuts up. The moment is genuine and finally the film achieves a powerful simplicity worthy of the memory of the victims.
A third strand of the story concentrates on Dave Karnes, a marine veteran working as an accountant in Connecticut. Footage of the flaming towers compels him to do some soul-searching, as it did for so many people confronting the magnitude of human evil on that day. Played by a very effective Michael Shannon, Dave Karnes is a man of few words and fewer facial expressions—a kind of all-American monument. As Karnes sits thoughtfully in a Pentecostal church pew, discerning his vocation to service at the site of Ground Zero, Stone frames a shot of a crucifix from below like a third tower. Unless Stone is operating at an unprecedented level of meta-irony, one can only surmise that he respects and honors Karnes’s profound faith as an impetus to action. Prior to 9/11, I don’t think Stone could have filmed such a scene with a straight face.
Jimeno’s vision of the Sacred Heart offering him a bottle of water could have seemed contrived, but for Stone’s striking, painterly treatment of the apparition.
At this point in the film, the viewer may call to mind Stone’s own distinguished military service (a Purple Heart for his tour in Vietnam) and wonder if he doesn’t harbor a deep-seated streak of conservatism. This quality extends to Stone’s treatment of faith in the film; McLoughlin, Jimeno and Karnes are all at least partially defined in relation to their Christianity. McLoughlin’s panicked recitation of the “Our Father” as he faces almost certain death is a heartbreaking sequence, reminding the viewer that an unusually high percentage of the courageous officers and firefighters who responded to the attacks were Catholics of Irish, Latino, or Italian ethnicity. Likewise, Jimeno has a vision of the Sacred Heart offering him a bottle of water—a moment that could have been contrived but for Stone’s striking, painterly treatment of the apparition. There is not a trace of condescension in Stone’s treatment of faith in the film, and the movie’s whole-hearted endorsement of faith, hope, and charity is a panacea in these dark days.
If I'm hard on the film, it's because movies like Platoon and Born on the 4th of July showcase what Stone is capable of when his artistry matches the weighty subject matter. There are tantalizing flashes of haunting, almost hallucinatory lyricism in World Trade Center: the shadow of a low-flying plane on the side of a skyscraper, paper shreds floating out of the blazing towers like an out-of-season snowfall, and the silent march of ash-covered police officers returning to headquarters like an army of shell-shocked ghosts. Moments like these remind the viewer of Stone’s talent as a filmmaker, but also measure the distance between what he is capable of and how far short he falls this time around. He had an opportunity here to make his greatest film, but fumbled by playing it safe.
I realize that criticizing a movie so obviously well-intentioned and intermittently powerful seems unfair; the worst kind of smug, snide cynicism. But this big-budgeted, would-be summer blockbuster suffers by comparison with Paul Greengrass’s gut-wrenching United 93, released earlier this year. Greengrass honored the courage of United 93’s passengers (who sabotaged the terrorist’s plan to crash the plane into the White House) by making a great film. He generated deeply affecting moments by telling the story in the stripped-down style of a documentary—no movie stars, no slow-motion, and no rousing strings on the soundtrack. The actions of that film’s heroes (none of whom had the matinee-idol looks of Nicolas Cage or Stephen Dorff) spoke louder than any speech a screenwriter could contrive. Greengrass let the actions speak for themselves. For now, I think that is the most effective approach to dealing with 9/11 on screen.
There is not a trace of condescension in Stone’s treatment of faith in the film…
Perhaps it was too soon for a 9/11 film, at least for Stone, who is an alumnus of New York University’s prestigious film program. The lack of emotional distance from the event apparently prevented him from achieving the necessary aesthetic distance. Perhaps Greengrass avoided this pitfall with United 93 because he is British, not American, or because his clockwork-precise style of filmmaking accorded better with his story than Stone’s operatic antics. Either way, United 93 will be remembered as the better of the first two 9/11 films released in 2006, and will hopefully achieve a broader influence on the way the subject is treated in future films.
The courage of Americans like McLoughlin and Jimeno, and the unwavering hope and belief of their families, will always be remembered and honored. World Trade Center is neither a necessary nor effective way of doing so. This amazing story deserved better treatment.