Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

World Trade Center

Grade : A+ Year : 2006 Director : Oliver Stone Running Time : 2hr 9min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

With “World Trade Center,” Oliver Stone is operating on the same fundamental principle that has fueled Steven Spielberg’s non-fiction films- in setting, at least (some dramatic license is taken in each one)- of the past 13 years (“Schindler’s List,” “Amistad,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Munich”). In his movie about the effort to rescue Port Authority officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin from the rubble of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Stone presents the unforgettable true story (written for the screen by relative newcomer Andrea Berloff- a thoughtful and resonant effort) with a clarity and conviction that renders any complaints of sentiment and cliches moot- plus, with Jimeno, McLoughlin (and their families) consulting on the project, you know Stone’s going to tell the story with palpable emotional truth, even if it seems like something we’ve seen before. And to complain that Stone- unquestioned as America’s most provocative filmmaker (in films both exceptional (“JFK,” “Platoon”) and excruciating (“Natural Born Killers,” “Alexander”))- softens his eye in the face of this national tragedy by not exploring the political and social aftermath (something, it should be noted, never criticized in reviews of Paul Greengrass’ astonishing “United 93” earlier this year), implying he’s throwing a softball to save his flagging popularity at the box-office (done no favors by the failure of “Alexander”), is a slap-in-the-face to a director who just found a story every bit as important as any he’s told in the past, albeit lighter on the political fire, and has dropped his usual flash and virtuosity and replaced it with (or at least deemed it less important than) passionate storytelling on a subject that clearly means a lot to him. It’s one of his best films.

It’s important that Stone- like Greengrass- focuses solely on the events of the day, and from the points-of-view of the people who experienced it, and watched it unfold. A New Yorker who was just as shake by 9/11 as we were, Stone recognized immediately that what was important in his story wasn’t hitting us over the head with the day’s still-numbing tragedy (though his staging of not only the Towers being hit without showing it, but them collapsing around McLoughlin and Jimeno, is among his most powerful set pieces), which the networks did (to the annoyance of one character, whose vocal opposition to it in he film is a cathartic jab at the mainstream media’s over-saturation of the event for the sake of ratings), but that he found- in the face of tremendous tragedy (McLoughlin and Jimeno were nos. 18 & 19 of 20 people pulled out of the rubble)- a story of profound goodness that cannot be easily explained, as it would in a lesser “drama.” And it is to Stone’s great credit that he doesn’t explain it, just as Greengrass didn’t try to explain the heroism of the passengers aboard “United 93” (though they were faced with certain death), and just as Spielberg didn’t attempt to get to the heart of Oscar Schindler’s rescuing of 1100 Jews from he German death camps in “Schindler’s List.” All three just showed us as it unfolded. Only the people who perform such extraordinary acts for their fellow man can fully understand why they do them; the best any truly great storyteller- be it in film or another medium- can do is present the facts as best they can. There are some who’ll say that such logic doesn’t hold true for “World Trade Center,” however, because of the person of Sgt. David Karnes, a retired soldier who tells those he goes to that he believes God is guiding him to get his old uniform on and head to New York and help with the effort- he was actually the first one to locate Jimeno and McLoughlin. But can it really be that simple? As simply- and memorably- played by Michael Shannon, it was thought by preview audiences that Karnes was a Hollywood contrivance, but the postscript after the film fades to black tells us otherwise. Like Schindler’s selfless high-wire con, like he 40-plus passengers and crew of United 93 who fought against their attackers when a government sat paralyzed, Karnes’ example- and that of the other men and women at Ground Zero who risked their lives to save the victims of these attacks- gets to the heart and question- of what motivates people to think of others in the face of despair.

In artistic terms, Stone is doing something similar by making this film (which features an elegant and emotional score by “Ray’s” Craig Armstrong). Both him- and his films- are a lightning rod for controversy. Even decidedly apolitical films like “U-Turn” (which this reviewer enjoyed as dark comedy) and “Any Given Sunday” (still unseen by me) take hits from critics, pundits, and the public for their approach to the material. While it’s not hard to see why people felt uneasy about the idea of an Oliver Stone 9/11 film (though his original concept- voiced in 2001 at a panel discussion- of possibly a film a la the great French thriller “The Battle of Algiers” (which, ironically, is the approach followed by Spielberg in “Munich”) is still one I’d be interested in seeing), I immediately saw the film as a cause to celebrate. Why are some people so afraid to have filmmakers change…or so unwilling to believe they can? True, even a simple story like “Born on the Forth of July”- while one of his best movies- felt melodramatic and emotionally overwrought in Stone’s hands, but one gets the feeling that “July” was very autobiographical for Vietnam vet Stone. In “World Trade Center,” Stone brings the objectivity of a journalist covering a story, watching the story unfold- and powerless to stop it from doing so- to the film’s 2 hours and 9 minutes. But just underneath the surface is that same level of personal identification from not just “July” but also “Platoon”- based on his own Vietnam experience- but also “JFK,” where not only his passion for the man of Kennedy infuses every frame but also the determination of his protagonist- Jim Garrison- to seek out the truth, or at least come to an emotional one, may lead him down some wrong paths, but ultimately inspire others to act when so few have before. Stone may not be visible in “World Trade Center,” but you can feel his love for his subjects in every person portrayed in the film.

As McLoughlin and Jimeno, Nicolas Cage (whose muted but exceptional performance rivals his best work of later- see “Adaptation.,” “Face/Off,” and the criminally underrated “The Weather Man”) and Michael Pena (whose highlight performance in “Crash” was overshadowed by the bigger names in the cast; no danger of that happening again with his lived-in and equally-powerful work here) show remarkable restraint in performing their character’s desperation under extreme circumstances, which are restaged for he cameras, giving the film its’ powerful sense of authenticity. You feel the immediacy of the rescue worker’s mission both in their efforts to get through the rubble- trying to find who they can- but also in the dialogue between the chatterbox Jimeno (who has a vision of Jesus that makes for one of Pena’s most inspired moments) and he silence-preferring McLoughlin, who form a bond in their extraordinary situation that no one else- not their families, not their rescuers, not the fellow officers waiting for work on them- can really understand. Early in the film, McLoughlin tells his team to “Protect yourselves, and watch each other’s backs.” You’re not likely to see a purer expression of that sentiment than in this story in any other film this year, as not only do the two men do that for themselves (talking and sharing of themselves so that the sounds of their voices will keep them awake…and alive), but aren’t the people working at Ground Zero doing that for them, and the friends and families doing that for their loved ones back home? Not since “Saving Private Ryan” and Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down” has such loyalty- on all fronts- been felt in theatres.

The other main characters are the wives left awaiting word. As John’s wife Donna, Maria Bello (“A History of Violence,” “The Cooler”) knows the drill in a time of crisis for a Port Authority family, making her wait that much harder for her and her family. Bello brings out both Donna’s optimistic strength and hard-to-suppress vulnerability in a performance balanced out nicely by flashbacks to her and John before that day. Even moments like arguments/heated discussions about having another child or an incompleted kitchen bring out a warmth to the character that’s palpable and important to feel. On the other end, there’s Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Secretary,” “Mona Lisa Smile”) as Jimeno’s pregnant wife Allison. She’s not Bello’s opposite in her performance- which is also superb- but Allison is not a seasoned vet like Donna, a familiar role in such films that Gyllenhaal performs at a fevered pitch of worry, but grounds with a strength almost willed into being so that she doesn’t fall into despair, either for herself or for her young daughter, who asks the difficult-to-answer question of whether daddy’s coming back. Like Bello’s Donna, the character of Allison is enhanced by flashbacks that show her and Will at key emotional moments- like disagreeing on a name for their to-be-born baby- before 9/11. As you watch as Donna and Allison try and hold their families together while holding out hope themselves, you see- through Bello and Gyllenhaal- the type of love that inspired McLoughlin and Jimeno to hold on as long as they did, to make it back to the people they loved.

Both on the day of, and the days after, September 11, the media invoked the old saw of how what happened that day felt like an “only in the movies” event. Well, after five years Hollywood has finally made life-imitate-art-imitate-life with two films depicting the events of that day. And it is to Hollywood’s credit that, by enlisting uncompromising filmmakers like Paul Greengrass (whose “United 93” stands as the year’s best film) and Oliver Stone (whose “World Trade Center” is not far below it) to recreate the events of that day, Hollywood ensured that their first efforts to bring the day to the screen would stand as lasting memorials to the people who lost their lives that day, and tributes to the people who gave and risked their lives to save others.

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