Eye For Film >> Movies >> World Trade Center (2006) Film Review
Director Oliver Stone could have been a politician: his is the happy knack of saying one thing and doing another. He thinks of himself as a liberal yet seems to endorse right wing values by design or omission. Not since the days of his Salvador, exposing Reaganite support for a corrupt military dictatorship, has Stone evinced any degree of clarity in political matters. Historical accuracy has never stood in the way of good drama. That, with a semi-documentary style and archival footage, has helped him become one of the great re-programmers of popular memory.
So it was with some ill-ease that I sat down to watch World Trade Center, knowing that the feelings of millions of Americans could be touched like a raw nerve. Producing a near-definitive account of 9/11 that would satisfy the traumatised emotions of widely differing sections of the public seemed a mammoth task - to produce an Oliver Stone account could end up worse than pouring petrol on a car crash.
To the director's credit, he has taken a novel approach - that of finding goodness in stories of courage and self-sacrifice. He avoids the blame-game, the politics fraught with potholes, and the unenviable task of making a big budget motion picture give an overall view of what happened. He also nearly - if not quite - manages to avoid political bias that could lower the tone of the film one way or the other. World Trade Center focuses on the experiences and emotional journey of two Port Authority policemen who are half-buried in the rubble - and, most significantly, that of their families.
The script is based largely on accounts from real-life counterparts. On that day, those people had no knowledge of who committed the atrocity leading to the collapse of the World Trade Center. They had no knowledge of the almost three thousand people who had been killed (although the statistics are mentioned in the closing credits). The women didn't even know which hospital their husbands would be taken to or if they had got out alive.
The scenes of panic, chaos and emotional desperation are skilfully re-enacted. Nicolas Cage, who is so often woefully miscast, here shines at what he is good at - portraying desolation and near-hopelessness. We see him start his day as normal, responding to what seems like a minor emergency at the Twin Towers. Barely having begun the evacuation attempt, he and a volunteer policeman are caught up in the collapse and trapped beneath vast amounts of debris. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as his colleague's wife, responds with a controlled hysteria that had me reaching for a handkerchief. Then begins the long slog to dig the two men out.
With such a slim story - people buried beneath a collapsed building who have to be burrowed out - Stone does an excellent job of maintaining tension and momentum throughout two hours plus. World Trade Center is a moving story told with an air of realism. So why has the film attracted considerable negative press?
The first reason is the title. This film is not about the World Trade Center. It is not even about the terrorist attack that claimed so many lives the day it was flattened. It is about the personal experience of two families whose menfolk are trapped, and the attack of 9/11 is merely the backdrop against which the story is set. It tells of great courage and dedication, of the bonds of love that, in different ways, are the most important things in life. Yet the title, coming as it does to herald the first major blockbuster set on that day, raises expectations of a definitive version of events, of the collapse of the World Trade Center, of the thousands killed, and so on. Such a title was a little short of lunacy. Imagine, after World War II, someone gets round to making the first big movie set in the time of conflict. They tell the story of Joe and Billy who get stuck in a trench somewhere, and their families back home are worried about them. It's a fair enough subject for a movie, but if you go and call the movie 'World War II' then people will feel cheated and annoyed. They will feel there is a bigger story that you promised to tell and didn't. Stone makes us expect one thing and gives us another. In ten years time, it will be a better film: just now, very few people want to find something to 'feel good about' when thinking about 9/11. The film goes beyond the horrors of that fateful day to the goodness at the core of individual hearts. It can remind us that the love we share with special people is greater than country or patriotism or a certain way of life or apple pie. But for a nation still in mourning, it hardly replaces a wake.
The second problem with World Trade Center is that if Stone almost managed to remain unpolitical the emphasis is on 'almost'. One of the symptoms of grief is anger. In the midst of the chaos, Bello rails against the desk sergeant who has first told her that her husband has walked out of the wreckage alive only to correct it later and say he is still buried. We can see it was not the desk sergeant's fault. It is easy to connect that up later to a marine who says, "We're gonna need some good men out there to avenge this." Put that with the (later) knowledge that Iraq, for instance, had no part in the terrorist act. The early morning shots of New York, as Cage gets up for work, include a fleeting glimpse the Statue of Liberty, beautiful in the early morning light, and the sound of a radio presenter saying "the polls are now open." More observation than bias, but such musings would have been better left out.
As a non-American, I began to appreciate better the outpouring of emotion that has traumatised that nation. It was suddenly easier to see how America rallied around the President (even a bad one), because at times of stress you go with the leader you've got. Watching the wives have their guts ripped out with worry brought tears streaming down my face. I didn't think (as many Americans would) of all the people who 'weren't represented' in the film - I had already accepted that the film was only about these two individuals and their families - but I did imagine how every person in America would have been able to identify in a very traumatic way with the disaster. Telling the story from the women's point of view was a masterstroke.
"It is about America in many ways, but ultimately it is a larger story about the human heart and survival that everyone should be able to relate to," says Stone. "There is not one word or mention of terrorism in the movie because no one knew that that fateful day's events were brought upon us by terrorists." In wanting to bring something good out of the tragedy, it is tragic that he only nearly succeeded.Reviewed on: 16 Nov 2006
If you like this, try:United 93