A film review by Craig J. Koban
WORLD TRADE CENTER
2006, PG-13, 128 mins.
Nicolas Cage: John McLoughlin / Michael Pena: Will Jimeno / Maria Bello: Donna McLoughlin / Maggie Gylenhaal: Allison Jimeno / Armando Riesco: Antonio Rodrigues / Jay Hernandez: Dominick Pezzulo
Directed by Oliver Stone / Written by Andrea Berloff / Based on the true story of John McLoughlin & Donna McLoughlin and William Jimeno & Allison Jimeno
There is something that unrelentingly looms like an ominous cloud over Oliver Stone’s good intentioned 9/11 docudrama, WORLD TRADE CENTER. It's not the thousands of lives that were lost at the hands of terrorists in New York on September 11, 2001, but rather the overall effect of a vastly superior film from earlier this year with a similar subject matter.
WORLD TRADE CENTER is the second major Hollywood release this year that tries to tell a specific story of that dark day in American history, one that has unalterably affected much of western society for the last five years. Unfortunately for Stone and company, it’s also the weaker of the two.
The other 9/11 film I speak of is Paul Greengrass’ masterful UNITED 93, which chronicled the doomed story of how the passengers struggled and fought for control over United Airlines Flight 93 from a group of Muslim terrorists. The two other planes that were also hijacked by religious extremists were flown into both buildings of the World Trade Center. UNITED 93 highlighted that incident, but it was decidedly in the background of the larger story of the Airlines 93 plane, which crashed before it reached its target (most likely the White House) and killed everyone on board. Yet, the film was an unmistakably powerful - and a highly fitting - eulogy to the plane’s passengers, whose heroism and incontestable courage in the face of their situation was extraordinary.
In my original review for UNITED 93 I wrote that, “No film in 2006…in 2007…or perhaps any other time in the future…will shake people up as forcefully as this one does.” I meant those words. As a Brit, Paul Greengrass may have seemed like the least likely candidate to helm a film that detailed an American tragedy, but his UNITED 93 emerged as one of the most gut-wrenchingly strong and heart-wrenching films of the decade. His guerrilla approach to revisiting that black letter day in 2001 was astonishing. Filmed in a pseudo-documentary style, using unknown actors as the passengers and terrorists, and utilizing real life 9/11 participants in many of the key roles (making them, thanklessly, revisiting memories and emotions that they would otherwise not want to remember) Greengrass’ film worked so astoundingly as an out-of-body experience. I have never seen – before or since – a non-documentary film that created such a feeling of absolute verisimilitude in its historical recreation. The effect to his approach was uncanny in its implementation and payoff. UNITED 93 breathed with such a passionate veracity that it was like taking a portal back in time to 2001. As a viewer, I felt like I was a fly on the wall, watching scenes of such realism that I felt like I was seeing news footage, not fabricated ones.
I reiterate all of my praise for that film as a sort of segue into Stone’s 9/11 film. I will forget about addressing the media’s preoccupation with whether 2006 is too soon for a film like this (we went through all of that months ago with UNITED 93’s release, and my simple answer back then was when is it ever the right time?). Instead of needlessly pondering the necessity of Hollywood making films that highlight human tragedy on a grand scale (which, if done with Greengrass’ skill and tact, are necessary to make us never forget the heroism of the day), I will focus more on Stone’s film as a whole. If anything, I will initially offer up two things about WTC – it definitely is no match for UNITED 93’s realism and emotional impact and this is Oliver Stone at his least politicized and controversial.
That last sentiment – for some odd reason – is what ultimately helps and hurts WTC. Now, with early news of Stone making his own fact based account of the story of 9/11 (in this case, the brave men and women of Ground Zero in New York), I am most certain that some lay film viewers out there became alarmed. I am not really sure why there was any need for panic. Stone never once has indicted himself for yearning to make a 9/11 work that spoke out on his own feelings and opinions as to why the events of September 11 occurred in the first place (this is not JFK-redux here, folks, so get a grip, please). He has continually gone on record as saying that he wanted the individual stories of heroism and survival to be the film’s talking points, not his own sermonizing. So, on that point, no one should go into WTC expecting an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory fest. As one Canadian magazine put it best, Stone here is replacing conspiracy with compassion. In a way, that’s a noble thing.
Yet, on the other hand…maybe it’s really not. Stone’s esoteric fingerprints are really nowhere to be found at all in WTC. If his name were not in the credits, then there would be no way of telling that he helmed this film. That is not to say that that WTC should have been a hotly politicized and debated piece of editorial filmmaking, but what is utterly lacking here is the Stone edge of old. Even his least controversial works had a zest for challenging its viewers with their slightly subversive material. Stone, whether you like what he has to say or not, cannot be discredited as a filmmaker that at least challenges us to ponder what he has to say. Sure, his last film, 2004’s unfairly demonized historical epic, ALEXANDER, was a flawed biopic, but it was too fiercely ambitious and sprawling in terms of story and themes to be ridiculed as an absolute failure.
It’s not that WTC is a poorly made film, nor is it a film that has any inkling of bad intentions (to Stone’s credit, it’s a fitting homage to the courage of New York’s police officers and rescue officials, and that’s decent enough). I guess the problem is that it comes at the heels of the extraordinarily authoritative UNITED 93. Greengrass’ film felt like a documentary. Stone’s film, by comparison, feels more like a feel-good Hallmark movie of the week. Coming from a director that is one of the better ones at diving into the hearts and souls of his subject matter and presents it to us – warts and all – all of its unflattering details, Stone’s approach is so uniformly conventional, routine, and saccharine in WTC. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a somewhat sugar-coated and sentimentalized work on 9/11 heroism and struggle, but when it’s coming from a maverick that is never pious, WTC does not emerge as a historical film that packs very much emotional wallop. It’s an unmistakable story of remarkable human survival that is told in an unremarkable manner.
As for a few things that the film does completely right, one of them is Stone's decision to never show the planes hit the Twin Towers. I think he does this because the images are so entrenched in our minds and were plastered on our TV screens with such repetition in 2001, that re-capturing those moments on film is kind of redundant. Instead, the film rightfully deals with the collective response to the tragic events as they unfold. Obviously, there are countless stories that could have been told about 9/11 survivors, but Stone focuses (like Greengrass did) on a specific one. In the case of WTC, he deals with the real life ordeal of two of the twenty survivors of the Trade Center wreckage in lower Manhattan. The two men were Port Authority policeman John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Micheal Pena, who gave a soft spoken strength to his great performance in last year’s CRASH).
WTC tells their story, from waking up a 4:30 in the morning to get downtown to their jobs, to the point where they are pulled away from their daily routines to help at the Twin Towers after the planes hit, to the point where they were trapped under the debris from the buildings’ collapse, to their fortunate rescue. All of this is intercut with the stories of the two men’s wives, Donna (Maria Bello), and Allison (Maggie Gylenhall), who grieve and pray for the best, even when they fear for the worst.
Stone does a decent job of establishing the sense of routine normalcy that must have been felt in the early morning hours of New Yorkers before the Trade Center had been hit. Again, he does not show the planes hitting the buildings, but instead uses news broadcasts and first hand accounts tell the story for us. The state of utter confusion is revealed, but maybe not up to the same level of realistic paranoia as presented in UNITED 93. Nevertheless, the mood and chaos of the time is fittingly realized, as is the determination of both Will and John to lead a first rescue team into the burning buildings in the hopes of saving any rescuers. In hindsight, their willingness and resolve was extraordinary. Honestly, how do you get to the higher levels of a burning building without ready access or a guarantee of personal survival? These guys, for lack of a better phrase, had balls.
As the men enter the buildings through the walkway that connects the North and South buildings at around 10:30am that morning, the buildings collapse and the men become trapped. Stone does not go into gruesome detail about the carnage here like Greengrass did in his film. In WTC we – interestingly enough – see the buildings fall from the perspective of those inside. When the towers come crashing down and the men become trapped, without a hope in the world, it is undeniably the film’s most dominant moment. The technical craft with recreating this scene is expertly handled by Stone, who obviously had much practice marrying CG visual effects with live action in ALEXANDER leading into this film.
The rest of the film from this point chronicles the men trying to get free from the tons of debris, not trying to fall asleep into a coma from the internal bleeding, and trying to combat insanity by talking about their lives. They hallucinate at times from the pain, as is the case with Will (who, at one point, thinks he’s seeing Jesus with a water bottle, in a dreamy sequence that is kind of unintentionally and unnecessarily funny). We get all of the prerequisite content that seems ripped from other disaster films, like the dual stories of the wives coming to grips with their respective situations. Then there is also the story of ex-Marine Dave Karnes (played a bit too broadly by Michael Shannon), who drives from Connecticut to New York to help lead a search for the survivors. If Karnes did not exist in real life and was instrumental to finding Will and John, I would have found him to be a laughable film creation.
As odd as it may sound, there is never any real, palpable tension or sense of dread in in WTC. Based on the facts, we know the men will be found and reunited with their families. That may seem like a silly comment on my part, but the same could not be said of UNITED 93. Yes, we also knew the outcome of those doomed people in that film, but Greengrass filmed it in such a way that made it nauseatingly tense and unnerving. Stone never seems to garner similar reactions. He seems more willing to elicit a sentimental and easy reaction from us. Of course, it's really, really hard not to feel sad for those two officers that lay under tons of rubble for nearly a day, but the emotions Stone rings out here are almost too telegraphed. We feel for the officers, but not as deeply as we did for the passengers on UNITED 93. In a way, WTC compromises its audience. I should have felt…well…more deeply. As a film that wants to be an unflinching and uncomfortable experience, it does not hit too many raw nerves.
On a technical level, this is a gloriously realized film. The shots of the World Trade Center and after effects of its collapse are unmistakably strong. The performances are also kind of thankless, in a way. Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena have to give textured and emotive performances while buried nearly up to their eyeballs throughout all of the film, and they handle their parts with gusto. Maria Bello and Maggie Gylenhaal, arguably, give the two best performances in the film as the anguished wives. Their work is not overplayed, nor forced. They cultivate women with real fears and a realistic amount of initial denial. In a way, they are the two unsung heroes of WTC. They give their struggling families the moral fiber that gets them through the tragedy of wondering whether their children will see their fathers again.
Yet, despite the film’s technical and performance might, there is not much to recommend WTC on beyond that. In terms of aesthetic style, Stone’s brushstrokes are noticeably absent. Looking back at his previous films, like JFK and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Stone is a filmmaking artist that has utilized his silver screen canvas like few others have. But, in WTC any notion of his skills are vanquished in place of a sort of old school, Hollywood disaster film methodology. UNITED 93 felt like a descent into the hellish waters of guerrilla filmmaking. WTC feels too much like a sappy melodrama for its own good. For all of UNITED 93’s dark and haunting R-rated proceedings that accurately reflected its story, WTC’s PG-13 soft-pedaling of the material short-changes us in a way.
Oliver Stone is a director –whether you like him or hate him – that has nothing to prove. The multiple Oscar winning filmmaker has arguably made some of the best films of the last twenty years. From his early efforts like SALVADOR, PLATOON and WALL STREET, to progressively assured pieces like TALK RADIO and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, to masterstroke visions like JFK and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, Stone earns respect as one of the more distinguishable voices in contemporary American cinema. His resume is extraordinary. I guess this is why his WORLD TRADE CENTER is disappointing as an underwhelming retelling of one crucial 9/11 story. Yes, the film is a good natured and noble-minded effort and it easily gets our sympathies and sorrow for its main characters. This is not a bad film; it’s a honorable one. Yet, Stone has made a career of being a button-pushing nonconformist that has ruffled more than his fair share of feathers. The fact that he made WTC is kind of ironic as a result. It’s a sanitized, PG-13 vehicle that is orchestrated for easier mass consumption. It’s not that it’s awful to make an accessible film like WTC, but in the relative wake of such grueling and penetrating 9/11 films like the astounding UNITED 93 – and that fact that Stone is its quarterback - the film ultimately is not as gripping and invigorating as it needed to be.
A fitting tribute to courage? Undeniably.
A great Oliver Stone film? Regrettably, no.