World Trade Center

The unpredictable Oliver Stone redeems himself in this moving thriller about September 11.
Justin Myers | Aug 9 2006 | comment  

World Trade Center
Directed by Oliver Stone | Paramount | 125 minutes
Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Stephen Dorff, Jay Hernandez, Michael Shannon

Rescue in the rubbleOliver Stone has redeemed himself. He has done this not just by making a  pro-America, pro-family, pro-religion movie. More importantly, Stone, a director of unquestionable talent who has recently stumbled several times, has made a moving, absorbing, quality film. World Trade Center, which opened yesterday, hits just the right note of reverence and pathos. While perhaps not of the calibre of Platoon or JFK, it is one of his best films in years.

The most surprising thing about World Trade Center is how downright conventional it is. No wild conspiracy theories (Nixon, JFK). No plunges off the deep end (Natural Born Killers, Alexander). Though he may tug a little too firmly at the heart strings in a few places, this is earnest, effective story-telling. Some may criticise him for compromising his art to make a commercially successful film. Of course, some of these same people brutally panned Alexander two years ago. Stone has recently repeated that World Trade Center is "not a political film". It is not. To impose a political agenda on the events of 9/11 would have been a mistake. To add something wild, in the style of a more typical Stone film, could have been a disaster. He takes us back to Ground Zero, before politicians of both sides were utilising 9/11 in their speeches. He takes us back to when we were all still in shock.

When I first heard that World Trade Center and Paul Greengrass's United 93 were slated for release this year I admit that I balked somewhat. Is it too soon for a movie about 9/11? That question can only be answered individually. The 9/11 attacks affected different people in different ways. Some, even those who lost a loved one, may find it therapeutic to watch a skillfully made film about the events. Others may not. Some may lament today's despicable level of materialism that such a harrowing tragedy be exploited so quickly: a mere five years later Hollywood is cashing in... our grandparents' generation had more respect... Well, the first movie depicting the Pearl Harbor bombing, Secret Agent of Japan, came out four months after the attack. Hollywood lore holds that 20th Century Fox began production on December 8, 1941 to get the jump on the other studios, which were not far behind with their own Pearl Harbor movies.

World Trade Center focuses on John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage), and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two New York Port Authority policemen who were trapped under the wreckage and were among the last to be rescued. It employs a familiar formula in real-life disaster movies. Get the stories of survivors and make them the central characters. This narrows the scope from the chaos of September 11 to a digestible, lucid story line. This does create a somewhat unrealistic vision of 9/11, showing a couple of men who survived in a tragedy when so many did not. But it works. Screenwriter Andrea Berloff creates a poignant narrative from extensive interviews with the survivors and their families. The quality of production and the gravity of the subject matter elevate this film above the countless mediocre, made-for-television, true disaster stories.

Stone's real stroke of genius is how abruptly the catastrophe strikes. The first plane hits the tower less than ten minutes into the movie. After all, nothing had prepared the world for the actual attacks. Stone uses genuine news footage from September 11 sparingly and to great effect. The camera follows the policemen inside as the first tower collapses. Stone intensifies the drama by opting to stay with them rather than to show the tower coming down. The policemen have no idea what is happening -- but the audience does.

No one in the cast detracts from the overall accomplishment. Cage overcomes the rather daunting task of delivering almost an entire performance with just his face, as his character is covered in rubble for most of the movie. Pena, fresh from his unforgettable turn in Crash, whose character has only slightly more movement than Cage's, furnishes the correct amount of fear, confusion and resolve. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal shine as the two sometimes frantic and frustrated, sometimes despairing, wives. Michael Shannon prevails as Staff Sergeant David Karnes, the marine who felt compelled to leave his job and trek down to Ground Zero to help.

Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey shows the heroic men and women of that day from a slightly lowered angle, giving them not a larger-than-life quality, but an elevated one. These people were not giants, but regular human beings who rose to the occasion. He presents the scenes with the trapped policemen in rigid shots. The camera fixes on the men and does not move, bestowing a suitable claustrophobic sensation. In another majestic shot, aided by computer effects, the camera rises above the wreckage all the way to a satellite as it broadcasts the tragedy all over the world.

Of course, most of the world felt nothing but shock and sympathy:"Today we are all Americans". On that day people forgot about political parties and daily issues and converged to help. Our interdependence was strengthened, our resolve confirmed. A new patriotism emerged. But gradually people put their flags away and resumed old grievances. While watching the movie, I felt a tinge of nostalgia for that brief period when most of the world stood in relative unity. As a voice-over of the film asserts, on September 11 we learned not only man's capacity for evil, but also for compassion. It is never too early to remember that.

Justin Myers is a film reviewer and teacher of Latin and Greek in the Washington DC area.

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