World Trade Center Review
Whilst unmistakeably an important film, Oliver Stone's World Trade Centre is another of his movies that seems to split the camp. Many have applauded it, but just as many have condemned it for being a bit of a damp squib. The first time that I saw the film, I fell decidedly into the latter category, thinking that it was just TV movie adaptation with slow-cooking performances rather than the powerhouse depths of soul-searching that I had expected. Neither too soon, nor too late, Stone's decidedly non-political honouring of the fallen and the survived, the suffering and the heroism of the 9/11 atrocity first hit me with a whimper when it should have been a scream. Now, with the opportunity to watch the film again - and with clearer, more objective eyes - I can try, once more, to find the heart behind the tribute.
On the morning of September 11th 2001, Port Authority cops under the command of Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) enter the stricken World Trade Centre, none of them knowing exactly what has happened, just that they have a job to do in getting the panicked and the injured out of there. Before they can even formulate a proper plan to aid with the evacuation the first tower collapses, burying them at the bottom of an elevator shaft under the entire weight of one of the biggest buildings in the world. Barely alive, and with only very limited movement, McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) cling desperately to the hope that rescue will come in time. Together they have to wait in the pain and the darkness of the abyss, with only each other, thoughts of their loved ones and the strength of their own spirits to keep them going. It's going to be a long day for them and for their families who can only watch and wait in a paralysis of uncertainty and helpless agony.
“I'm not hurt ... but I can't move.”
Nicolas Cage has never been one of my favourite actors. Occasionally great - Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas - but mostly just mediocre, I've never been able to take his horse's face seriously as either hero, romantic lead, cop or soldier, but here, in the rubble of the World Trade Centre, I saw him produce a fine, dedicated and understated performance that is strangely all the more effective for its absence of his usual pouty pyrotechnics. Michael Pena was one half of the double-act that saved Crash for me. He and Shaun Toub brought the multi-award-winning cliché and contrivance-fest out into the light and, once again, he proves to have an incredibly strong, yet vitally naturalistic charisma that makes his plight here as Will Jimeno completely tangible and sympathetic. At home, Maria Bello as Mcloughlin's wife and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jimeno's struggle valiantly with the anxieties and distress as the full horror of the situation unfolds. Both are superb in the roles, but the scenario that the screenplay has no choice over placing them in often feels cloyed, overly-sentimental and sadly, as a result, yawn-inducing. And this is where Stone drops the ball with the all-important tension quota. When we know the outcome already, it falls to him to rack up the pressure so as to ensure our continual emotional connection with the unfortunate protagonists. Jerking between the crushing situation that the men find themselves in and the excruciating fall-out that lays siege to their families is a totally necessary device. The plight of the wives is just as important, naturally. Yet despite providing some great hand-wringing scenes of despair and fragile hope for Bello and Gyllenhaal, the effect is often the same as that which afflicted Mel Gibson's war-flick We Were Soldiers, where the tension was diluted and sieved-out whenever the cameras returned home to the distressed families awaiting news of tragedy. That said, though, I do like the scene when Gyllenhaal's heavily pregnant Allison Jimeno loses her patience and gets out of the car to walk through a red light, her frustrations snapping quite believably at the futility of it all.
There are some great moments along the way. The initial arrival at the scene of the trembling tower is wonderfully evocative, the sheer incomprehension indelibly etched onto everybody's face. The confusion that reigns inside the foyer of the tower and the strange lull of indecision amongst the men going in and the people filtering out is well executed, Stone keeping things accurate to the conditions that the rescuers found as they entered. And even if the actual collapse is not depicted quite how you would have imagined it to be - we are only privileged enough to see the downfall from the men's grass roots level, which means hardly at all - the enormity of the chaos still blasts the senses. Individual elements of the trapped cops' predicament are well presented too. Jimeno taking a piece of hot shrapnel as jets of flame scoot just over their heads and the thoroughly petrifying moment when someone's gun gets cooked in the intense heat and decides to pump bullets randomly around the stricken men. But the involvement of some fantastical visions that the two have whilst lingering on the borderland between life and death is questionable. In real life, both have stated that these moments really happened and, at least, Stone remains true to their accounts, but the appearance of Christ cannot help but be viewed as overly-sentimental and mushy, especially when he arrives with a blessed drink for the thirst-ravaged victims.
“We're gonna need some good men out there to avenge this.”
Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but World Trade Centre is still gripping enough to have you stick with it until the end. The performances are all terrific, but it is just the strange lack of tension and the perversely uneventful narrative that makes the story much less film-friendly than you would think. That said, the story definitely needed to be told, though I am not convinced that Stone's low-key presentation was the best way to tell it. The hope and the fighting spirit of those involved are well depicted, but the raw emotion that was necessary to bring this apocalyptic saga properly home to us has been left lagging behind. This style would, indeed, have been much better suited as the TV adaptation I first viewed this movie as - and I don't mean that in a derogatory way, folks, its just that by making a big production like this and then denying the audience the really big moments seems somewhat at odds with the whole point of making it in the first place. Yes, it is told from a claustrophobic and intimate point of view - both from under the rubble and in the fears back home with the families - but that misses the supreme opportunity of bringing the full size and scale of the atrocity to a screen that could do the deed justice. United 93 felt equally claustrophobic but was considerably more emotive, visceral and demanding of an audience's involvement than this. They are not the same stories, I know, but the cinematic style worked extremely well in that film's favour. For Stone, the big-screen treatment swamps the emotional core of story far too easily, and incredibly makes it feel overblown and long-winded, which is almost inconceivable given the subject matter.
“It's like God made a curtain with the smoke ... shielding us from what we're not yet ready to see.”
Craig Armstrong's slow and tasteful score doesn't necessarily hit the wrong notes, but it doesn't really hit many of the right one either, underlining the story in a purely un-striking, middle-of-the-road fashion that, in keeping with the tone of the film, refuses to let the trauma fully out of the bag. Another niggle includes the portrayal of ex-Marine Staff Sgt. Karnes, played by Michael Shannon, going on his own personal crusade to Ground Zero on a veritable mission from God to help the fallen. Shannon's delivery of his lines feels contrived and he wanders throughout the debris and the film like he has blundered in from a different movie altogether. His real story is actually quite unique and challenging but I feel his pivotal role in the rescue of McLoughlin and Jimeno has been made a little too theatrical and stylised for its own good.
So, we have a film that takes one of the most dramatic and world-changing events of recent years and crafts a slow-burn, thoughtful and reflective treatment of only a handful of experiences that helped shape its outcome. But as a dramatic film, barring only a couple of intense and nerve-jangling sequences down there in the dark, World Trade Centre largely fails to register on the emotional Richter Scale. Well acted, marvellously designed and incredibly well photographed, the message behind it all still shines through, however. But the message is something that even the lowest calibre hack director couldn't fail to accomplish. From Oliver Stone, I expected a lot more than this. Perhaps he is going to attack the topic again from a different perspective, like Clint Eastwood has done with two-sided WWII opus of Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima and he, himself, has done to purge his Vietnam demons with Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July. If this is indeed the case, and I hope it is, then maybe one day we will finally be able to fully appreciate the majesty and power of his vision.
As it stands right now, the film still feels unsatisfactory to me. But, as a cog in the wheel of what will undoubtedly become a huge and ongoing cinematic exploration of the atrocity, it certainly has an indelible part to play. Something this big and far-reaching can't be boxed-off in one offering and, perhaps wisely, Stone has opted to limit his probing of America's scar-tissue to allow the topic enough space to heal in the hands, hearts and minds of other filmmakers. It remains a noble, if surprisingly low-key testament to the experiences and the courage of a small, but inspiring, group of people whose terrible plight polarizes the scope of the much bigger picture into a more intimate and immediate sphere of understanding. Although still a disappointment, I will nevertheless award World Trade Centre a solid 7 out of 10 for its honesty and exceptionally worthy endeavours in bringing to the screen, and the world consciousness, a tale of hope and courage in the face of indefensible evil.