I have never been a fan of Oliver Stone. His films have always seemed like bombastic attacks lacking in focus and suffused with anger at everything in general and nothing in particular. This dates back at least to his cheesy horror film The Hand (1981), a silly movie about, yes, a crawling hand (“It lives. It crawls. And suddenly, it kills!”) — and one of the most pointlessly angry things I’ve ever seen. Still, Stone has always been admirable as a Hollywood maverick — someone who made films his way, producing a distinctive body of work. Liking them or disliking them was beside the point.
And then came Alexander (2004), a fascinating, misbegotten mess of a movie — a failure, but a defensible one. At least it was until Stone blamed its failure on the movie’s gay content (“There was clear resistance to his [Alexander’s] homosexuality … the film simply didn’t open in the Bible Belt.”). He then recut the movie to “de-gay” it for DVD (“Now more action-packed”) and lost all credibility in my book. Now we have the “reformed” Stone doing a major mea culpa with World Trade Center, a piece of filmmaking so cautious that it makes Ron Howard look like a daring visionary.
World Trade Center is about 9/11 in the same sense that Gone With the Wind is about the Civil War. Yes, it’s based on the true story of John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena, Crash), two Port Authority police officers who were trapped in (and rescued from) the World Trade Center, and I have no doubt of its authenticity or the importance of the story. Let’s not confuse that with the importance of the film.
As written by newcomer Andrea Berloff and directed by Stone, the film ultimately comes down to a somewhat less active version of Jay Russell’s Ladder 49 (2004) with a 9/11 backdrop. Remove the true story aspect and the backdrop, and it’s any movie you’ve ever seen where someone is trapped by a disaster and has to be rescued. Any presumed importance Stone’s film possesses is strictly by association — to a point where it’s hard not to feel that the film is as much cashing in on as memorializing a national tragedy.
Signs of trouble appear early on in a shot when the camera moves down to look at John McLoughlin’s supposedly sleeping wife, Donna (Maria Bello wearing a pair of disconcerting blue contact lenses), lying in bed at 3:30 in the morning — in full makeup and not a hair out of place. You know right then that the movie is in Hollywood mode. That’s too bad because for a while the movie is compelling. The evocation of the first attack — the shadow of an airplane followed by the sound and feel of the impact — is brilliant, imparting a sense of what it must have been like to actually be there.
It’s not long, though, before the film becomes a nicely crafted Movie of the Week with all the depth that suggests. The plotting may be true to life, but that doesn’t keep it from feeling like a string of obvious cliches. For example, since we know from the onset that the film is about two trapped Port Authority police officers, the third officer, Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez, Hostel), falls into the category of one of the red-suited characters in a Star Trek episode who are there to get killed. As a stock filmmaking device, that’s excusable, if not exactly inspired, but it verges on disrespectful when applied to a real person.
The use of flashbacks and cutaways to the families waiting for word on the fates of the two men is inevitable, owing to the impossibility of creating a film that never leaves the trapped characters. However, the film can never get beyond depicting situations that are both simplistic and sanitized, to the degree that you feel like these characters have lived their lives in the knowledge that one day Hollywood would put them in a movie. I’m sure these people are more human than they are presented here.
A similar problem exists with the subordinate characters. The most interesting one, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon, Bad Boys II), is so sketched in that he comes across as a kind of Marine ex machina. The film bases him on a real person — an ex-Marine who is convinced that God has called him to go to New York City to help — but never offers us anything more to explain the man. He just exists for purposes of the film’s main narrative, and to tacitly tie 9/11 to the war on Iraq. Karnes’ final scene — where he remarks on the need for men to avenge the attacks — is followed in the film’s wrap-up with a superimposed title that tells us he re-enlisted and served two tours of duty in Iraq. It’s no surprise that arch-conservative political writer Cal Thomas waxed ecstatic over Stone’s film, calling it “one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see.” And yet Stone keeps repeating that this is not a political film.
For a filmmaker who has spent his creative life questioning just about everything, Stone here just accepts anything at face value. After the early sequences, the only thing that even remotely feels like Stone’s work is a bizarre scene where Jimeno, one of the two trapped police officers, has a vision of a translucent picture-book Jesus holding a bottle of designer water. I’m assuming Jimeno had a vision something like this. I’m unconvinced that it looked like an outtake from The Doors.
The attempt to get at a truth — a transcendent one about unity and human goodness — by focusing on one story of 9/11 may well be a noble one, but this isn’t the film to do it. It’s too well-scrubbed, too by-the-numbers, too much a foregone conclusion. All the advertising is geared to conveying the outcome of the film, so there’s no dramatic tension. It’s never about whether or not the characters will survive; it’s simply about when they will be rescued.
The story is important, yes. The characters portrayed certainly deserve a tribute, but they deserve something more than the Hollywoodized knee-jerk dramatics of Stone’s movie. Rated PG-13 for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke