Before I get started with the usual Pajibical claptrap, let’s just get this out of the way first: World Trade Center, though not a great film by any measure, is a powerful one. It is intermittently painful and uplifting, a beautiful poem to the human condition, the power of individual will, and courage in the face of unspeakable terror. Indeed, it is a heartbreaking elegy to those who died, underscored by a rousing, life-affirming, bittersweet power chord that makes you want to run home and kiss your wife, hug your dog, and call your mom. If you can watch WTC without welling up a little, then you must be so cynical and embittered that life is completely wasted on you. Either that or you’re so obstinately cool and emotionally detached that years of therapy couldn’t uncork your inner David Copperfield.
That said, given the historical magnitude of September 11th, the audience and media exposure that a film like this commands, and Oliver Stone’s unique perspective on world events, World Trade Center takes the easy way out, missing an opportunity to be a truly important film. I’m not necessarily suggesting a Loose Change-like conspiracy-theory approach to the events of 9/11, nor am I dismissing the value of John McLoughlin and William Jimeno’s inspirational true-life story, but I don’t think that WTC offers any more understanding of the events of 9/11 than Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor did for December 7, 1941. In that way, Oliver Stone’s film feels like a failure.
Indeed — as harrowing and elegiac as it is — once distilled, World Trade Center is just a piece of entertainment, an expensively produced summer blockbuster with a big-name director that uses Nicolas Cage for his box-office powers and opens on a Wednesday to take advantage of two extra days of opening-weekend grosses. Certainly, I understand the nature of the movie industry, and I can even appreciate the studio’s profit motive but, by giving us a film that asks no questions, adds no new insights, and never challenges our understanding of the events of 9/11, World Trade Center feels exploitative in a way that Paul Greengrass’ United 93 did not. I’d argue that United 93 is akin to the sober, organically powerful first act of Saving Private Ryan while World Trade Center feels more like the last two acts, calculated to extract every last bit of emotion out of you via the rousing patriotic music, the Gyllenhaal tears, and, of course, a staged reunion contrived almost entirely to ruin your mascara. And the cynic in me even sees Paramount’s decision to produce and release this film while the memory is still relatively fresh as just another element in WTC’s overall marketing plan.
But, you know what? It works. Regardless of its motive and despite Oliver Stone’s decision to make a conventional, apolitical film about two men stuck under the Trade Center rubble and their wives’ faith against all odds, it works on the same level that Apollo 13, Superman, or Lance Armstrong does: As a testament to survival, heroism, and the unrelenting power of the American cliche. And not even a critic who endeavors to cut through the manipulation and see the bullshit beneath is necessarily immune to the kind of cliches that resonate with the power of 3,000 deaths.
The only moments in World Trade Center that rival anything in United 93 are the foreboding opening scenes, remarkable only for the quiet mundanity leading up to the shadow of a plane flying by seconds before it strikes the World Trade Center. Stone, like Greengrass before him, successfully hangs the carefree banality of daily life (Jeter, subway tickets, the NASDAQ, a primary election, and country music) on the precipice of disaster, exploiting our collective foreknowledge to build the tension. Once news of the attack has spread, however, the film almost immediately loses its cultural gravitas, and the only non-Hollywood moments that remain are the somber voices of Aaron Brown or Tom Brokaw, which — in the context of 9/11 — are twice as affecting as anything that probably any filmmaker can conjure.
As the chaos builds, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), a 21-year vet of the Port Authority, leads a busload of officers, including Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), to the vortex of Ground Zero. As the officers arrive and papers flutter from the sky, they are quietly transfixed with the scene, gawking like everyone else, until a falling body pierces through the equanimity, triggering that first-responder instinct.
No plan to follow, McLoughlin leads a few of his men inside hesitantly, honorably belying the popular perception of the Port Authority’s gung-ho courageousness; there is a heartbreaking authenticity to the men’s approach once inside the tower, demonstrating that bravery and bravado are not necessarily intertwined. Before they can even make their way up the tower, it trembles, and the iron and steel give way to gravity, leaving McLoughlin and Jimeno trapped beneath the rubble.
And there they lie. And lie. A typical audience, no doubt, probably would not have the patience for a film that exists mostly in the claustrophobic confines of wreckage, as close-ups of Nic Cage and Michael Pena exchange dialogue that would be insufferable in almost any other context. There are no monsters, aliens, or even the slightest bit of narrative intrigue to propel the movie forward, and anyone who’s opened his eyes in the past few weeks knows exactly how World Trade Center will play out. In fact, I doubt that anything beneath the mangled steel and concrete bears any resemblance at all to the real thing — hell cannot be duplicated on a Hollywood set. But credit Andrea Berloff’s script and the performances of Cage and — especially — Pena for mining the occasional bit of sentimentality for everything its worth. As a viewer, you’ll buy it all, because you want to, because Oliver Stone is working with the empathy of a nation, and because you’re all too willing to turn off your critical faculties and allow the catharsis to overtake you. And when it does, it hits harder than you expect.
I’ll give World Trade Center this, above anything else: For a few minutes — before the lights come up, before you re-enter a world full of moving vehicles, Hezbollah, and Jennifer Aniston’s engagement — it’s nice to remember what’s so great about this goddamn country of ours. And anything that can rekindle that sense of unity, even briefly, is worth the effort of watching.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives in a blue house with his wife in a hippie colony/college town in upstate New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
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World Trade Center / Dustin Rowles
Film | August 11, 2006 | Comments ()