There is a question that hovers over Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. Is America ready for a movie about September 11? Since there have already been several documentaries on issues raised by the event (not to mention United 93), the more precise question is: Are we ready for a dramatization of the physical horror itself? Wouldn’t such a project demean the event and its victims (no matter the excellence of the production) by being nothing but another disaster movie along the lines of Earthquake and Twister?
Are we ready? I’d say we were ready on September 12, 2001, if the movie in question could convey comfort as well as excitement. I am not very keen on using art or entertainment as balm, but I also understand that there is comfort and then there is comfort. Both Schindler’s List and Life Is Beautiful were made to bring a measure of emotional bolstering to audiences appalled by the Holocaust. Both movies were based on the undeniable truth that huge crimes reveal the evil of human nature but can also evoke the response of heroism, compassion, and resolve. (This is stated explicitly and rather unnecessarily in the epilogue to WTC.) There is authentic comfort to be wrested from this truth as long as the atrocity that has incited heroism isn’t falsified or palliated.
World Trade Center turns no blind eye to the physical horror of 9/11 but deliberately does not deal with the perpetrators of it. In fact, Oliver Stone has made a film that may offend his admirers while astonishing his detractors. (For the record, I admired Salvador, Nixon, and the first half of Platoon, and disliked the rest of his work.) WTC isn’t polemical, not even implicitly so. No indictment is made of any politicians or capitalists or cartels or terrorists. No conspiracy theories are proffered. Even the filmmaking itself, though gripping, has been purged of the usual Stone tics: no sudden shifts from color to black and white, no repetitions of the same action from different camera angles, no sudden explosions of light to italicize evidence of evildoing. It’s as if Stone, surveying the carnage and examining eyewitness accounts, had decided, “This isn’t about me. It’s about them.”
And who are “them”? That’s the key to the nature of this movie. WTC is a tribute to the American working class responding to terrorism. Stone and his scriptwriter, Andrea Berloff, have centered their fact-based story on two police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, who were about to take part in the evacuation of the first of the towers hit by a plane, only to find themselves trapped under the crumbling, smothering ruins. Their prowess, their skills, and their undoubted physical courage are suddenly canceled before the movie is 30 minutes underway and with another 110 minutes to go. Any heroism to be displayed by the pair now has to be that of endurance, not achievement, of stoicism, not daring. They are sufferers, not relievers of suffering. They are not the heroes of an action movie, they are the protagonists of a passion play. A very American, blue-collar passion play.
It was a risky choice for a movie meant for a mass audience because audiences expect drama, even hyperdrama, but in a passion play, whether the protagonist is Christ or some martyr, the hero’s principal functions are to undergo suffering while remaining true to his or her vision. This very constancy courts monotony. In order not to abandon drama altogether, the moviemaker must be careful to find situations that test constancy. In the greatest of cinematic passion plays, Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, the saint is tempted to save her body by recanting her vision. Conversely, what made Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ masochistically monotonous for me was the fact that Christ’s only temptation was over in the first five minutes of the film.
And what temptation could await two cops buried up to their chests in rubble? Surely they had no choice but to abide their rescue or their deaths? Where is the drama in that?
But Stone and Berloff have found a temptation for their heroes. The temptation to die. The immobility and airlessness of their entrapment impel Jimeno and McLoughlin toward sleep, but the latter has read that giving in to sleep while undergoing trauma hastens the onset of death. So he fights to stay awake by talking to Jimeno, by joking, cajoling, and scolding his brother officer. As time passes, the more deeply buried McLoughlin begins to pass out, and so it becomes Jimeno’s responsibility to remonstrate (“Don’t you die on me, chief! ’Cause if you die, I die!”), to bluster, and to reminisce. The camaraderie becomes mutual life support, and this struggle injects drama into passive suffering.
Their flight from death isn’t strictly an animal response. These two are bound to their families with a strength that-correctly or not-we have increasingly come to perceive as a blue-collar value in this country. The temptation to sleep in the arms of pain-obliterating death is a temptation to abandon one’s family. So, in this case, the will to survive evinces working-class honor.
The pent-up horror is magnificently caught by Seamus McGarvey’s camera work, which finds subtle layers of darkness within darkness, and makes us feel the very dust choking the victims’ throats. But this visual achievement would eventually drive audiences crazy with its claustrophobic intensity were there not the parallel scenes of the wives and families desperately seeking knowledge of the lost men. Dashing to relatives for comfort and to agencies for information, they have the physical freedom denied to their husbands, but Allison Jimeno and Donna McLoughlin are emotionally stymied when they aren’t allowed into the city to take part in the search and rescue, and are as dependent on news reports as Will and John are on rescue teams. So the wives, too, are protagonists of this passion play, and they too must summon emotional reserves to survive it.
Stone’s direction wonderfully juxtaposes the macro with the micro. When the towers collapse, the camera puts us in the center of a deluge of concrete. Soon the screen goes completely dark for several seconds, and then we find ourselves staring into a single eye, the eye of McLaughlin as he awakens in his underground inferno. We have gone from the spectacle of chaos to the nightmare of being buried alive. After dwelling with the officers in their de facto crypt for many agonizing minutes, the camera zooms out of, and above, the ruins. This sudden spaciousness brings us no relief, however, because the ensuing helicopter shot revealing the extent of the damage seems to be telling us that Jimeno and McLaughlin cannot be rescued.
Every single role is acted to perfection. I have loved Nicolas Cage, the great basset hound of American movies, for his flamboyance, but I love him here for his suppression of flamboyance. The early moment when he quickly sizes up the readiness of the three men who have volunteered to enter the WTC with him, may be the most directly affecting three seconds that Cage has ever achieved. Michael Peña, as Jimeno, suggests the sort of unquenchable humanity that best endures extreme distress. As Allison and Donna, the usually mannered Maggie Gyllenhaal and the always unaffected Maria Bello both render unfissured and touching portraits.
I have some objections. The epilogue is trite and tritely directed. Stone’s staging of the airplane attacks is powerfully indirect and subtle as long as he relies on his own footage, but when he briefly interpolates shots of the actual disaster, I felt awful, as if the terrorists were working as Stone’s second unit production team.
And at a time of such desperation, wouldn’t at least some of the Jimeno and McLoughlin families have turned to religion for comfort? I saw little investigation of that in the movie.
But generally this movie works on the emotions in a way that avoids facileness and vulgarity. If it doesn’t take full measure of 9/11 (what single movie could?), it is a poignant tribute to the strength of the family in the face of catastrophe.