I thought it was too soon to watch a movie about 9/11. But when a fire fighter friend of mine asked me to go with him, I had little room to complain about raw emotions. If he could endure it, so could I.
As it turns out, World Trade Center is emotional, but not devastating. Remarkably, Oliver Stone seems to have made a Hallmark Special about 9/11.
It isn’t that movie is trite; it certainly does not make light of the events of 9/11. But this is not your typical Oliver Stone movie. He sanitizes the film as much as possible and keeps the lens tightly focused. This is the story of two survivors, and the restraint shown by the director blunts the sharpest emotional edges.
After all, the actual footage of the event carries more punch than anything a movie-maker could create, and we’ve already seen that footage, over and over again.
The bulk of World Trade Center takes place in a destroyed elevator shaft where two Port Authority police officers were rescued. And because everything turns out alright for them, the movie is much easier to take than it might otherwise be. Stone does not fetishize the gore here, and but for one shot of a man falling from the tower, he does not play with the horrible choices that faced so many people that day.
Nicholas Cage plays John McLoughlin, a police sergeant who was leading a team into the towers to help evacuate. Neither he, nor his men, have any understanding of the magnitude of the tragedy about to unfold. They have heard rumours of a second plane, but none of them believe it. When the towers collapse, and the surviving Port Authority police awake in the wreckage, they aren’t entirely sure what has happened to them or why.
It’s their complete confusion, their dedication to duty, the poignancy of their struggle to live that ultimately robs this movie of a political agenda.
Nicholas Cage has a great face; long and world-weary. He puts it to good use in the rubble, where his face is really the only part of him you can see. The supporting cast members offer sensitive and nuanced portrayals of the other police officers and their families. And the only unsettling performance comes from Michael Shannon.
He plays Dave Karnes, an ex-marine who, upon seeing the attacks on television, immediately walks off his job, illegally dons his old uniform, and goes to ground zero to help find survivors – slipping past the barricades. (But first, he stops for a haircut. Apparently, there’s a reverse-Samson effect for marines. The less hair they have, the more capable of lifting rubble off survivors they become.)
If the real Dave Karnes is as intense as Michael Shannon portrays him, he’s one of those rare breeds of men who blend hero and zealot in an uncomfortable way. The lines he utters in the movie are so over-the-top that even the police officers being rescued have to laugh. And it’s only through Dave Karnes’ thirst for vengeance that Oliver Stone foreshadows where the country is headed.
The reaction to that hint by my fellow movie-goers was mixed.
The man sitting to my right in the theatre, loudly asked why the movie wasn’t showing Arabs dancing in the street. People turned around and glared at him because World Trade Center just isn’t that kind of movie.
It isn’t about our righteous anger or our deserved rage. It’s a portrait of America during a crisis – a snapshot of our country at it’s best. A snapshot of our country as it was, before everything changed.
Stone doesn’t make you think here; he offers no opinion about the proper response to the worst terrorist attack on American soil, who we should blame, or how to put the horror into context. He doesn’t challenge, provoke, or enlighten. In short, he doesn’t do any of the things he does best; instead, he retreats into sentimentality.
But perhaps sentimentality was the only possible choice; after all, anyone who lived through 9/11 will never be moved, haunted or horrified by anything they see in a movie as much as they were by what actually happened that day.
Some columnists have professed shock that Oliver Stone could make such an abashedly pro-American movie, but they never gave Stone a fair shake to begin with. The director of Platoon, Nixon, and JFK has never made a movie about what’s wrong with America without also showing what’s right about America.
So the World Trade Center’s uplifting focus is narrow, and Stone keeps the message simple. He wants viewers to remember the essential goodness that our citizens are capable of; he wants us to remember how united our nation once was. He wants to remind us of a day that we can still be incredibly proud of, no matter what kind of political fractures have divided us since.
And that’s a good thing.