With the exception of the brilliantly nuanced Salvador, almost every movie Oliver Stone has made has driven me up the wall in one way or another, whether it be his yen for conspiracy, his cult of hypermasculinity, or his vulgar Marxism and inability to draw distinctions between degrees of evil in the corridors of American power. Stone may be the bluntest instrument in Hollywood’s arsenal, but watching his new film about the collapse of the Twin Towers, I found myself nostalgic for his chutzpah. Whether he was leaned on from above to cut out the political grandstanding, or whether he’s desperate for a hit after a string of flops and the critical and commercial disaster that was Alexander, World Trade Center is fatally benign — an unexceptionable and therefore unexceptional heroic narrative that does little to further the tentative creep of our pop culture toward parsing the significance of that catastrophic day.
Sure, the movie will make you cry (I did, buckets), but your tears will be the painless kind that flow with ease when bad things happen to good people in a no-fault universe, and salt-of-the-earth proles rise with gritted teeth to all occasions. Tactful to a fault, Stone shows us no terrorists, wild-eyed or otherwise. George Bush’s initial absence from the scene goes unremarked: He appears only in a studiously neutral video clip, cheering on the nation. Even Rudy Giuliani, who for once in his life behaved like a mensch that day, gets only a couple of offscreen lines. In this resolutely populist movie, screenwriter Andrea Berloff has drawn heavily on testimony from John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (played by a rather wooden Nicolas Cage and the excellent Michael Peña, last seen as Sandra Bullock’s locksmith in Crash), two Port Authority policemen who volunteered to go into the building and were trapped in the rubble after both towers went down.
The movie opens serenely with scenes of Manhattan waking up to a sunlit early-fall day, then narrows to McLoughlin presiding over roll call at the Port Authority. The cops scatter to their various duties at the station, keeping their eyes peeled for a missing girl, the day’s most pressing business until the first thump stops everyone in their tracks, and we’re taken on an understated trip through the now-familiar rumors of a commuter plane flying off course. Even the arrival on the hellish scene of five cops who volunteer to enter the World Trade Center is brought off with taste and decorum — we don’t see the towers fall, only familiar images of ash-covered figures filing like silent ghosts out of the building and a brief shot of a body falling from a great height — which continues as three officers, still unaware that the tower has collapsed, find themselves buried in a forest of twisted concrete and metal. One dies trying to help another, and John and Will are left, in pain but unsure whether they’ve suffered internal injuries, unable to see each other but desperately swapping family histories and favorite TV shows to keep themselves awake and hopeful of rescue. Though clearly at pains not to mine their ordeal for kicks, Stone can’t help doing what he does best here, building a slow burn of arbitrary terror out of off-screen noise, as the crumbling infrastructure creaks and groans, avalanches of steel and concrete rain down on the two survivors, fires break out and a dead colleague’s gun discharges its bullets in all directions.
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From here on, the movie switches rhythmically back and forth between the men and their families, each nursing their fears of the unknown. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal are very strong as wives Donna McLoughlin and Allison Jimeno, and there’s one powerfully wrenching moment when the heavily pregnant Allison asks herself — as so many helplessly did that day — why she’s doing something so banally normal as shopping when ?she has no idea whether her husband is alive or dead. ?But as with many action directors, Stone’s characters rarely rise above type, and there’s something schematic and idealized about the ?juxtaposition of gutsy wives with stoically enduring husbands. If ever there was ?a day for feeling helpless, ?it was September 11, and ?given how few of us were surrounded by perfect families and attentive partners, I await the ?time when some gutsy filmmaker will plunge, as writers like Jonathan ?Safran Foer (Extremely ?Loud and Incredibly Close) and Deborah Eisenberg (Twilight of the Superheroes) have done, into the morass of what it feels like to lose a spouse or face death yourself, or to just be around that day, when your marriage is on the rocks, or one of you is cheating, or the kids are far from all right, or your extended family doesn’t immediately leap into the breach. Berloff’s flat screenplay drops a few timid hints at marital trouble into an awkwardly staged imaginary chat between Donna and her husband, then the movie backs away into inspirational cheerleading and, of all things, visions of Christ. Throughout the movie, John and Will are portrayed as exemplary working stiffs of few words, the kind of men’s men Stone loves, who will pull for each other to the finish.
I don’t know whether Will Jimeno really did urge a rescuer to cut his leg off the better to reach John, who was buried deeper beneath the debris and losing consciousness; but in the movie, the pair of them are so heroic, they’re scarcely human. I don’t mean to be cynical: A lot of New Yorkers, especially firefighters and police, did a lot of amazing things — as the movie puts it, “because it was the right thing to do” — on September 11. But in all this distracting nobility, it is not true to claim, as Stone has gone on record saying, that “politics are irrelevant — it’s about courage and survival.” There’s no room for anyone’s conspiracy theory here, but one Iraq war and a bunch of missing civil liberties later, we know that in the most urgent sense, 9/11 and its aftermath are all about politics.
And Stone knows it, for he’s slipped in a prophetic character, also drawn from life: What should we make of a Connecticut accountant named Dave Karnes (played with icy ferocity by Michael Shannon) who stops off at the barber on his way to volunteer at Ground Zero to get the buzzcut that will turn him back into the Marine he once was? If World Trade Center resembles any of Stone’s films, it’s the sweaty solidarity and heroism of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, and it’s a measure of the director’s ambivalent patriotism that we don’t know whether to cheer Karnes’ loose-cannon derring-do, or cower in terror of his prescient thirst for revenge. For better or worse, it’s Karnes who provides the movie’s only morsel of hindsight, indeed its only venture into the political. In every other respect, World Trade Center is just another ritual rehearsal, and, like all endlessly repeated images of apocalypse — and I include the vastly superior, terrifyingly realistic United 93 — however respectfully brought off, it threatens to return as pornography.
WORLD TRADE CENTER | Directed by OLIVER STONE | Written by ANDREA BERLOFF | Produced by MICHAEL SHAMBERG, STACEY SHER, MORITZ BORMAN and DEBRA HILL | Released by Paramount Pictures | Citywide