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World Trade Center   D

Paramount Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Oliver Stone
Writer: Andrea Berloff
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Stephen Dorff, Jay Hernandez, Michael Shannon.

Review by Rob Vaux

Who wants to feel good about 9/11? I sure want to feel good about 9/11! So much easier than grappling with reality. Reality hurts; it's icky and messy and it makes me feel sad inside. I'd much rather focus on all the happy things that happened on that day: the uplifting rescues, the courage that America showed, the way we all came together in the face of unspeakable tragedy. That's much nicer than contemplating how the legacy of those who died has been squandered by craven, incompetent men unworthy of history's mantle. Or how many of our freedoms and liberties have been compromised for a shabby pipe dream of staying safe. Or how thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died since in an act of ill-conceived political fantasy. The Middle East is engulfed in chaos, enemies like Iran grow stronger by the day, and the monster behind it all sits in the dark and laughs because his plans have succeeded beyond his wildest aspirations. But let's not think about all the horrible, screaming, nightmarish things that September 11th triggered. Let's not look the Gorgon in the face; that would be too scary. Instead, let's wave the flag a little more and try to transform the soul-searing disaster into something more palatable. Otherwise, we might have to do something about the mess we're in.

I don't necessarily fault World Trade Center for its intentions. Like too many of us, it wants to see the silver lining in the cloud of that day: specifically, the example of Port Authority officers John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who were among the first policemen on the scene, and who went into the Trade Center shortly before it collapsed in an effort to save those trapped inside. It's a touching story that fits neatly into Hollywood's long-held mantra to couch tragedy in the auspices of optimism. The project received the blessing of both the McLoughlin and Jimeno families, and by all accounts, remains accurate as far as the facts go. But fact is not the same as truth, of which this film has very little. Instead, it pushes us back into a fog of warm fuzzies, trying to get us into a positive frame of mind and shunting out the pain and horror in the process.

And frankly, as drama, it stinks. Regardless of who signed off on this film, regardless of how close it adheres to the details, it all plays like a trumped-up movie of the week. Were this a fabricated story depicting a fictitious disaster, it wouldn't merit the graveyard shift on the Hallmark Channel. The gravitas of September 11th is all it has going for it. It's supposed be honoring the sacrifice of that day; instead, it's the other way around. Director Oliver Stone has the good sense to lay off the bombast that clouds his worst work, and he succeeds in conjuring a few moments of awe-inspiring terror which adequately convey the immediacy of standing in the rubble as it tumbles down around our ears. But beyond that, World Trade Center wallows in cheap emotional gratification and obtuse button-pushing that neither involves us in the figures we see, nor sheds any light on the events that engulfed them.

At the heart of it stand McLoughlin and Jimeno, hardworking joes who got the call that day and were in the lobby when the tower collapsed on them. Injured and trapped within the ruins of an elevator shaft, they struggle to find the will to stay alive, hoping that rescuers will reach them before they succumb to their injuries. Stone segues between their creeping, dust-filled hell, the agonizing stress of their wives and children (led by Mario Bello as Mrs. McLoughlin and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Mrs. Jimeno), and the often improvised efforts of men like Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) who move heaven and earth in the ruins above, searching for survivors.

Stone adopts a politically neutral tone, in an effort to stress unity and common ground. Yet in the process, he bleeds the story of any urgency or ferocity. Though based on actual testimony, Andrea Berloff's script sports a momentous tin ear, featuring thudding dialogue as natural as a toothpaste ad. Flashbacks focus on the cops' lives before the attacks, intercut with scenes beneath the collapsed building, and in suburban homes where tearful family members sit glued to their sets. It hopes to endear such figures to us, but the false theatricality robs them of their honesty, and the "factual" details serve more to clutter than illuminate. Real people? Maybe, but they play like cutouts in an Irwin Allen movie. United 93 revealed nearly nothing about its protagonists and yet that minimalism achieved exponentially greater human depth than we see here.

The storytelling itself flails about in a similar fashion, trying vainly to snare our sympathies. Stone can be crudely effective at times -- he certainly gets the feel of Ground Zero right -- but it's obvious that he's leaning on the details of 9/11 to generate emotional impact instead of using the power of the medium to shed light on his subject. World Trade Center never shakes that bad habit. It assures us that the tears were real, then coats them in clumsy gratification. It promises that the characters exist, then renders their lives in one-note shorthand. The focus remains solely on McLoughlin and Jimeno, which provides an easy example of how people were affected by the tragedy, yet we see almost nothing of the many other thousands of victims that day. They become simple afterthoughts, hinted at in brief moments and mentioned before the closing credits, but otherwise shunted aside by storytelling necessity that inadvertently negates the enormity of their deaths.

In their place, we have the shopworn "triumph of the human spirit" theme, which is really World Trade Center's deepest failing. Subpar storytelling may have been more forgivable had its purpose been less troubling, but the well-meaning efforts to sugarcoat the realities of that day do far more harm than good. I understand the need to find hope amid disaster, and to reunite us the way we were in the weeks following 9/11. But base appeals to our sentiment won't get there. We need to acknowledge the evil of that day, not just the good. We need to remember the shock and the anger and the disbelief, and then ask ourselves what we've done about it since. Sometimes, that means removing the scales from our eyes: seeing those events not as a glowing affirmation of our values, but a searing, scarring blow against them. World Trade Center tries to understand that blow, and for all my complaints, the filmmakers operate under the very best of intentions. But turn on the nightly news and you can see -- all too clearly -- the path those intentions have paved. It may have been a day of bravery and courage, but that means nothing without recognizing the darkness too: darkness on our side as well as theirs, which has only grown stronger in the ensuing half decade. By avoiding that balancing act -- by minimizing the evil and thus devaluing the good -- World Trade Center becomes nothing more than cheap melodrama with a little pedigree. The dead deserve a better monument than that.

Review published 08.08.2006.

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