World Trade Center
Director : Oliver Stone
Screenplay : Andrea Berloff
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2006
Stars : Nicolas Cage (John McLoughlin), Michael Peña (Will Jimeno), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Allison Jimeno), Maria Bello (Donna McLoughlin), Jay Hernandez (Dominick Pezzulo), Michael Shannon (Dave Karnes)
In Eyes Wide Open, his memoir of working with the late director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay for his last film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), writer Frederic Raphael relates a story in which Kubrick was discussing the possibility of making a film about the Holocaust. When Raphael mentioned Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), Kubrick replied that the film was not about the Holocaust. “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed,” he said. “Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.”*
Much the same could be said about World Trade Center, Oliver Stones new film that is purportedly about the horrors of 9/11, but is really about two men who survived that harrowing day against all odds. Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña star as John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two real-life Port Authority cops who, along with hundreds of other firefighters and rescue workers, went into the burning towers and were buried in them when they collapsed. McLoughlin and Jimeno were in the concourse between the two towers when the South Tower collapsed, and they were buried 20 feet down in the rubble, badly wounded, but alive. The film moves back and forth between their physically agonizing experiences immobilized beneath tons of concrete and twisted metal and the emotionally agonizing experiences of their families back home, particularly their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal), who don’t know if they’re dead or alive.
World Trade Center contains a number of extremely powerful moments that convey all the shock and terror and confusion of 9/11. Just seeing the buildings collapsing in on themselves from the inside--an image that has, until now, resided primarily in the nightmarish imaginary--is enough to twist anyone’s gut. The images of McLoughlin and Jimeno buried in the rubble, their faces turned into horrorshow masks caked with soot and concrete dust, are alternately horrific and poetic, and we feel their panic as the potential tomb in which they are trapped shifts and threatens to collapse in on them for good.
Nevertheless, World Trade Center produces mixed feelings because it stumbles mightily in several key places. In one instance, Stone makes the disastrous decision to literally visualize a hallucination Jimeno reported having in which he saw Jesus carrying a bottle of water. On paper, the image doesn’t sound terrible, but reproduced on screen in gaudy colors like a kitschy Christ-on-velvet painting come to life, it stops the movie dead and threatens to induce deeply inappropriate giggles.
The other major stumble is the film’s portrayal of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a retired Marine staff sergeant who went to Ground Zero independently and was responsible for discovering McLoughlin and Jimeno. However he is in real life, Karnes is portrayed in the film as a clenched-jaw militant who borders on the creepily psychotic. This undercuts any sense of heroism or selflessness the character is surely meant to embody. It doesn’t help that the screenplay also stuffs him with a jingoistic line of dialogue at the end in which he declares that some good men are needed to “avenge” what happened on 9/11, which clearly suggests a linkage to the invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq and awkwardly disrupts the film’s otherwise apolitical nature.
Even with these flaws, though, it is almost impossible to fault the film’s intentions. Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff have done an admirable job of digging through the rubble of the worst day in modern American history and mining out a story of hope and love. However, this very act of sentimentalizing--telling the uplifting story of a few who lived at the expense of the thousands who died--obscures some of the real horrors of that day. Whether or not this is a good thing will have to be left up to the individual viewer, but it is indisputable that World Trade Center is, in many ways, the perfect epitome of the Hollywoodizing of calamitous historical events: reduce it all down to the experiences of a handful of characters and find a positive message at the end.
What is most surprising is that the film comes from Oliver Stone, who has spent the past two decades making the most incisive, questioning, and deeply controversial films about American history mainstream Hollywood has ever seen. From the ambiguous battlefields of Vietnam in Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989)--both of which earned him Best Director Oscars--to the murkiness of the Kennedy assassination in JFK (1991), to the Shakespearean downfall of a President in Nixon (1995), Stone has used the darkest edges of modern U.S. history to question the powers that be and challenge prevailing American myths.
World Trade Center marks a radical departure from this tendency, and it doesn’t suit Stone particularly well. In playing nice, as it were, he even reigns in his wild aesthetic tendencies, which in some respects is a good thing because they have gotten out of hand in some of his recent films (can anyone explain his use of gaudy psychedelics in the battle scenes in Alexander?). But, at the same time, his newly bland approach drains World Trade Center of potential tension and power, and the resulting film plays more like a made-for-TV movie projected on the big screen than the product of one of America’s most dangerous filmmakers tackling a day of infamy.
*I discovered several days after posting this review that Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader began his review of this film with the exact same quote from Stanley Kubrick. I would say that great minds think alike, but such a statement would serve me much more than Mr. Rosenbaum, so I’ll just note it as an interesting coincidence.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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