Among the misguided elements in Oliver Stone’s film World Trade Center is the audacity of its title. What film could be definitive enough to merit that name? Certainly not this one, that favors myth-making over global perspective.
John McLoughlin, a real-life Port Authority Police Sergeant played in the movie by Nicolas Cage – one of the men who managed the response to the terrorist bombing of the towers in 1993 — is observed going about his morning on September 11th, 2001. New York City wakes with him: delivery trucks making their drop-offs, commuters going to work and talking about baseball. The twin towers are there on the horizon. It’s a convincing and poignant moment, frozen in time.
Then we see the shadow of a plane, and feel the thump from our theater’s subwoofers. In the confusion, McLoughlin and his small, ad-hoc team of police volunteers know only that one of the towers was struck, and there are people up there in need of rescue. As they begin to gather the equipment they will need, in a terrifying cacophony, the building they are in collapses on top of their heads.
McLaughlin and rookie officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) are, as they were in real life, immobilized under twenty feet of rubble. They are crushed and bleeding; they know that if they fall asleep, they will die. With throats choked with dust, they force themselves to talk about their wives and children. Though this may well have been what the real men discussed, the dialog here is awfully weak. And when these conversations are intercut with hokey scenes of the worried wives – wasting two gifted actresses, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal — and when the gooey music starts to swell, the film drops like a stone.
Paul Greengrass’ film United 93 recreated the confusion and terror of 9/11, but reorganized the information in documentary style and invited us to draw our own conclusions. But what does World Trade Center have to do with 9/11? We’ve already seen a hundred schmaltzy profiles on the Nightly News.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that what those two men did wasn’t heroic; it clearly was, as were the actions of the men who risked their lives to save them. What I am saying is that 9/11 is too complex a symbol to reduce it to narrow hero-worship, and that isn’t going to promote healing; and I think it’s too soon to start healing, anyway.
Oliver Stone, the director of JFK , Platoon , and Born of the 4th of July , has made films with time on their side. They forced us to revisit painful memories of a past that had receded. Eventually, we will have that perspective on 9/11 – but not now, not when we’re still in the middle of it.
Both Jim Emerson, the editor of RogerEbert.com, and I were reminded of a remark made by Stanley Kubrick: " Schindler’s List wasn’t about the Holocaust. It was about success. The Holocaust was about six million people who got killed. Schindler’s List was about a few people who didn’t." Moving or not, the same criticism can, and should, be levied against World Trade Center . We shouldn’t feel better about the thousands who died, and are still dying, because two men didn’t.
A character in the film says, "The smoke from the towers was erected by God to keep us from seeing what we’re not ready to see." Stone’s film is that smokescreen, and what it obscures is the Middle East.
World Trade Center is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, listened to, or podcast, by going to wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.