World Trade Center: Oliver Stone’s Simple Message Film

The most controversial thing about Oliver Stone’s 9/11 movie, “World Trade Center,” is how conventional and simple the film is, at once an honorable commemoration of lost lives and a hopeful message saga about the indefatigable American courage.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, just a tad disappointing, coming as it is from Stone, one of the few overtly political filmmakers working today and a master of controversy, responsible for such hot-button pictures as “J.F.K.,” “Natural Born Killers,” and so on.

“Word Trade Center,” just like “United 93,” raises the question of what kinds of expectations we have–or should have–for entertainment fare about this momentously disastrous event in American history The cycle of Hollywood movies about 9/11 has just begun and we know there will be more films if the first ones succeed at the box-office (“United 93” is considered a disappointment).

Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” was more exciting to watch on purely technical and visceral levels, though I couldn’t rationalize any particular reason to see the movie, since it didn’t offer any new info or angle about that flight. It also suffered from being released rights after the airing of two decent TV films on the subject (both nominated for Emmys, by the way).

In contrast, “World Trade Center” has a larger scope, is less thrilling but also more emotionally felt and touching, though like Greengrass’s film, it mostly recreates events, characters, and feelings, without much commentary or editorializing.

I have no doubts that some critics will raise the issue of timing, the eternal debate of whether the horrific experience of 9/11 is too close for us viewers to want to revisit and vicariously experience it in a movie-house (or TV). Arguably, 9/11 is still more shocking, harrowing, and deeply felt than the Vietnam War and anti-War movement, and I mention that because the same issues were raised regarding the tenuous relation between Hollywood and Vietnam.

It took a decade for the artistically interesting movies about Vietnam to appear, including Michael Cimino’s right-winger “The Deer Hunter” and Hal Ashby’s left-winger “Coming Home,” which both competed for the 1978 Oscars. In fact, the screenplay for Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” was written in 1975 but no studio in town would touch it. The movie was finally made in 1986 and greeted with wide acclaim, Oscar Awards, and commercial success. (See Essay)

Stone’s new yarn begins on September 11, 2001, an unusually hot day in New York City, with a shot of the alarm clock pointing to 3:29am. Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), a respected vet of the PAPD, had been up for hours (since 3:29am), a requirement of his daily one and a half an hour trek to the city.

Cut to Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), an officer with the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD), who is tempted to take a personal day and enjoy his hobby of bow hunting, but then decides that he would rather go to work. Unbeknownst to him, it proves to be a fatal and fateful decision. Indeed, Will and John and their colleagues make their way to Midtown Manhattan, just like they do on any routine day, only September 11 was not any other day.

A team of PAPD first responders drive from mid-town Manhattan to the World Trade Center. Five men, including Will and John, go into the buildings themselves and get trapped when the towers collapsed. Miraculously, both men survive, though they are buried and pinned beneath slabs of concrete and twisted metal, 20 feet below the rubble field. Though they can’t see each other, they know that both have survived the ordeal.

The danger is falling asleep, and hence, for the next 12 harrowing hours, Will and John keep each other alive by talking about their families, their lives on the force, their hopes and disappointments in life.

Through flashbacks, we get to see their memories of their last activities before they left home, their relationships to their loved ones, wives, children, and relatives. There are also regrets, about things they should have done or said but didn’t, and promises how to change their lives, if and when they survive the ordeal.

As noted, the scale of “World Trade Center” is wider, if not deeper or more ambitious than “United 93.” Stone also tell the stories of the fighters’ wives, Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), their families, and children.

In depicting a basically static situation, of two men buried in the middle of those towers for hours, Stone is concerned with the question minute-by-minute survival under the most horrible circumstances. He suggests that, while Will and John were pushed to the edge of death, they might have survived due to deeply personal and spiritual reasons. The men would have died had they not been able to reach out and communicate with each other, and then able to find deep sources of strength in their family lives.

With the exception of one brief scene, at the end, in which they are seen walking in the same hospital corridor, Donna an Allison never meet, which is probably how things were. (For some reason, I expected them to get together once the crisis begins).

We get from the families’ POVs the unbearable tension of waiting, the fear whenever a police car arrives at the door that someone might descend to inform of their loved ones’ deaths, the tortured of being confined in their own circle of hell, with no message from or information about their husbands.

Through crosscutting, Stone goes back and forth between the battle zone, with the two men stuck motionless in the rubble fighting for their lives, and the home front, depicting the families, the politicians, and the news media. This strategy, often used in war movies and “World Trade Center” is a war film occasionally results in tedium and repetition, which may be inevitable considering the extra-effort to be faithful to the facts.

Film’s turning point occurs in the last reel, when one courageously determined Marine goes down on a mission and finds the two men alive. Stone and his producers dwell on the specificities as well as generalities of the story, namely, they use this particular rescue mission to comment on the uniquely American traits of courage, strength, and hope, and how protecting those cherished values calls for personal risks and great costs.

Stone has said that, “Being entrusted with this story by the real people dictated my responsibility to be as authentic and accurate as possible at all times, to get it right.” He might have gotten it right, but his filmic imagination must have been constrained by these conditions. (Writing this, I realize that I open myself to criticism, but that’s the way I feel when evaluating “World Trade Center” not as an illustrated news event, but as an art work with all the relevant properties involved).

On a strictly technical level, the filmmaking is good. Stone, a native New Yorker, has not shot extensively in the Big Apple since “Wall Street,” in 1987. With the help of his gifted cinematographer, he seems invigorated to do a more realistic movie about “average” New Yorkers, policemen, firemen, and other working-class residents, particularly after the disastrously operatic and psychedelic epic “Alexander.”

Digging deep into the hole, literally and figuratively, Stone depicts two men in the darkest hours of their lives, hardly knowing each other and yet intimately bonded together by their experience the survival of one depends on that of the other’s.

We know that Will and John are not much concerned with politics or terrorism, because they seldom talk about them. The movie is about courage, survival, and the indomitable will to live. “World Trade Center” is thus not a political film, but more of a human story, and one of the strongest reaffirmation to be seen in years of the American family as the bastion of good values.

Will the picture make money

“United 93,” the first Hollywood 9/11 movie, made only $31 million, but its budget was low (less than $20 million). In contrast, “World Trade Center” was costly (over $60 million), so the stake are higher. If the movie is successful, it will not only please Stone and his producers, but will encourage other filmmakers to make other movies about this momentous event.

End note

“World Trade Center” began its cinematic life when the producer Debra Hill read about McLoughlin and Jimeno in a newspaper article and decided to meet with them. The movie would become Hill’s last film, when in 2005, after a long fight, she succumbed to cancer.