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Crawling from the Wreckage

 

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone, USA, 2006

Rating: 3.0

 

Posted: August 12, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

We've all done it. You're listening to an interesting conversation; the air is charged with the weight of the subject matter. Every sentence uttered feels like the most important thing you'll hear in days. You've been silent so far, but you're dying for everyone else to acknowledge that you're as smart, as well-informed on this subject as they are. So you take an opening and barrel ahead. Adrenaline carries you through at first; you don't realize until halfway through that what you're saying is obvious, maybe a little trite, and adds nothing of significance to the conversation, and your offering unravels, losing steam as it limps across the finish line.

That, in a nutshell, is Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. With the five-year anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks fast approaching, and Paul Greengrass' harrowing United 93 still fresh in some moviegoers' minds, you can almost feel years' worth of pent-up emotion and eagerness welling up in the collective chests of the Hollywood machine, boiling to critical mass. And it only makes sense that Stone -- a director so tuned into the divisive touchstones of the socio-political zeitgeist of the last few decades that he might as well have his name legally changed to add the words "controversial director" appended in front -- would eventually speak out on celluloid about this still-sensitive tipping point in history.

One hopes he'll still get to do that, but World Trade Center is little more than a throat-clearing cough in the larger cinematic conversation about 9/11. It's certainly gripping in its scenes of street-level confusion and real human terror. And it's inarguably moving and hopeful at the end, when its heroes, real-life Port Authority cops John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), are rescued from the rubble of the twin towers.

But for all that, it's ultimately empty, both thematically and, counter-intuitive as it seems, dramatically. For a film whose very title implies a definitive statement, it has nothing of any heft to say about the events of that terrible day, except for a slim sliver of good old American feel-good hopefulness. And its plot is as flat as the piece of skyline where those towers once stood. Two guys are trapped underneath the rubble of those buildings. They endure hellish conditions -- the deaths of fellow policemen, explosions, further avalanches of rubble, even a firearm going off by itself, not to mention the very real knowledge that they could die here. Their wives and family members marinate in the stress and hopelessness and fear of that day, not even knowing whether the men are still alive. And then they're rescued. The end.

Before this goes any further, let's be absolutely crystal-clear. That statement is not meant to in any way trivialize the plight of those brave men, who rushed into the WTC concourse with the intent of rescuing survivors from the blazing towers. But dramatically, it's a static story. The men don't overcome their plight through any action of their own -- they spend the great majority of the story pinned beneath concrete, their faced caked in grime and dust. As undeniably relieved as we are when they're found and eventually rescued, even though we know the outcome ahead of time, they're still passive protagonists in a milieu that demands action -- if not the speeding-cars-and-blazing-guns kind of Bruce Willis movies, then at least the forward motion of men in control of their own destinies.

In interviews promoting the film, the real-life McLoughlin has continually praised the real heroes of that day, and asserted over and over -- rightfully -- that their stories deserve to be told. Well, we don't get them here. We don't follow, in any real detail, the stories of the workers and volunteers who helped pull these two men from the rubble, which would at least allow audiences to subconsciously absorb a lesson about determination and perseverance. Dramatically, that's a difficult hurdle to overcome, and World Trade Center doesn't, relying instead on our churning emotions of fear and relief to compensate. As a result, we don't come away with any more insight into Sept. 11 than we had when we went in.

That said, Stone's fealty to capturing events as they happened for these men on the ground is admirable. We do feel, very viscerally, the dread and uncertainty and slowly spreading doubt and fear of the family members, especially as captured by Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jimeno's pregnant, unraveling spouse, and a gracefully understated (and, at first, almost unrecognizable) Maria Bello as McLoughlin's wife, who in contrast attempts to keep her own fears in check in order to hold her family together. The struggle we read playing across the lines of her subtly elegant face is as real, as heart-wrenching, as anything we witness the men themselves going through.

A note about those men who help to pull McLoughlin and Jimeno from their prison: Michael Shannon, looking a little like Rainn Wilson from The Office, provides some unintentional comic relief as Dave Karnes, an ex-Marine who gravely reads the events of that day as the opening salvo of a new world war, and, dressed in his fatigues, bluffs his way onto the WTC site to help look for survivors. We laugh, despite ourselves, at his ramrod-straight carriage and creepy wannabe-cop aura. Frank Whaley (The Doors) gets a thimbleful of screen time as a volunteer medic, and Stephen Dorff (Blade), believe it or not, successfully shrugs off his unlikable "Stephen Dork" persona as a sympathetic EMS technician who heads the effort to pull McLoughlin and Jimeno from their concrete graves.

In a recent Entertainment Weekly, Stone cryptically hinted that he may yet make a 9/11 movie that addresses big, uncomfortable questions and pisses people off. Maybe he'll take Karnes' assertions that, like it or not, we were swept into a new world war on that day, and make a movie as politically, dramatically and emotionally charged as Platoon, Salvador, Born on the Fourth of July or JFK. Until then, we're left with a feel-good movie that only echoes the helplessness we all felt on Sept. 11. We empathize with McLoughlin's and Jimeno's wives as they stand around with their hands figuratively tied -- not least because we feel similarly hamstrung, as Stone himself perhaps feels, helpless, for whatever reason, to yet fire an opening cinematic salvo of the kind that the subject deserves.

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