World Trade Center

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 03/06/07 22:02:28

"The unfilmable becomes the unwatchable."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

When the credits roll at the end of World Trade Center, the first to show is the 'Directed by Oliver Stone' caption which feels absolutely right. Stone has made a career out of documenting difficult and traumatic periods of history whether it be the raw wound of Vietnam in Platoon, the fact that an American President may have been killed by his own staff in JFK, or the rise and fall of Alexander. These films have all been unapologetically political, often prodding and touching sore points that still run today. This makes it all the more surprising then that World Trade Center is such a limp and trite tv movie of the week.

This is not to say, as some critics did, that World Trade Center needed to be an investigation into the various conspiracies that the 9/11 commission did nothing to silence. That would be a predictable move from Stone, and frankly it's not needed. Loose Change is easily available for those who wish to find out which conspiracies hold water and which do not, and there are libraries full of literature on the subject too. Perhaps one day there will need to be a filmic representation of these contentious issues, but that day is not now. Yet without a bugbear under his skin, or someone to fire a potshot at, Stone finds himself dramatically inert and short on passion.

The film starts with a gloriously sunny morning in New York - it's easy to forget that before the planes hit, September the 11th was a beautiful day, and it's an eerie start by Stone, as port authority officers John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage), Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) check into their day shift. This opening is the best that the film gets, as Stone shows us two subtle, yet terrifying, clues as to the horror about to unfold. First, Jimeno is strolling along the streets, when he hears a deafening roar above him. He looks puzzled for a minute, but then moves on. McLoughlin meanwhile, sees what seems to be a shadow of an abnormally low plane fly past on the streets. Then the call comes in - the twin towers have been hit and all help is needed. McLoughlin leads his fellow firefighters in, but the difference that they are making is cut short when the towers fall, trapping McLoughlin, Jimeno and a fatally injured Pezzulo in the ruins, seemingly beyond all help.

What's interesting is that Stone never shows us the planes hitting the towers - but does it work? On one hand, we've all seen those terrible moments replayed so many times that it's etched forever more into our minds. But on the other hand, it also dramatically undercuts the central power of the film. If Paul Greengrass could show us the final moments in the cockpit of the doomed United 93, couldn't Stone have - somehow - shown us the impact of the planes without sensationalising them? If we are dealing with the most horrific day of our lifetimes, don't we need to see the horror to deal with it? Perhaps not, and it'd be a brave man to give us a definite yes or no answer. I certainly couldn't, but Stone doesn't either, and he seems uncertain as how to best manage the tricky balance between truth and sensationalism, and honesty against exploitation.

The result of this is that the rest of the film feels detatched and unforgiveably a big step away from the realities of the situation. Stone's limp approach reduces the horror of that day to a bad day at the office. That may be a tasteless quip, but you can only comment on what you're given - which is not a lot here. Incidents that are presumably true, have the manufactured feel of fiction, rather than the ring of truth. A handgun that goes off in the ruins next to McLoughlin and Jimeno because it's heated up so much, may well have happened, but it seems more like a deleted scene from Poseidon. There's the occasional hint that the fiery, controversy baiting Stone of old is struggling to get out, but when it does - the trapped men have a vision of Christ carrying them a water bottle - it becomes a needless and faintly ludicrous distraction. The fall of the towers may be rendered as an utter cacophony of chaos - the sound editing and mixing is stunning - but once Stone takes us into the ruins, all the drama drains out of the situation. Perhaps the biggest problem that Stone has, is that our remembrance of the situation and our imaginings of what it would have been like to have been trapped in the towers is far more terrifying than any film reconstruction can ever hope to recreate. Yet this was a problem that didn't affect United 93 and you have to wonder just what future generations will get from World Trade Center that they won't get from YouTube.

With a bland script and limp direction, the actors are lost in movie of the week turns. Cage dials down his intensity, apart from one scene, where he can take no more of being pinned down by rubble and just screams and screams - bringing to mind unfortunate memories of The Rockand his Christ pose. Pena manages better, and evokes some emotion from the thin material he has, but the worst served people are those on top. Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhall play their respective partners, and are saddled with trite flashbacks - Cage doing carpentry, ho hum - and not a lot to do apart from looking tearful. This is not at all to denigrate the real life people they play - what the hell else could they do apart from worry? - but where's the fire from Stone, where's the heart wrenching, gut aching terror these people went through? It's nowhere to be found, and Gyllenhall is stuck with one of the most inappropriate moments of comic relief that will surely be found in any film. She's told to head to the hospital, but not told which ward or department to go to. For some reason this is played with laughs, complete with a "Oh Joey, you're such a doofus!", sensibility. All that's missing is a headslap and a "D'Oh!".

Perhaps the flaw that finally sinks Wolrd trade Center is Michael Shannon as Dave Karnes. Karnes was an ex-marine, who upon seeing the chaos shaved his hair, put on his uniform and went to Ground Zero to do his share of help. All very laudable, but why is he portrayed here as a complete loon? With a dead eyed stare, a bizarre lack of awareness as to how he comes across and a relentless insistence on his past as a marine he's enormously distracting and feels like a character from a totally different film that happened to wander onto set on day. It's not helped that he's giving lines like "It's as though God put up a screen of smoke to prevent us from seeing something we are not yet ready to see" to grind out with a straight face. He may be a real person, who really helped, but that's not necessarily a good reason for inclusion. Hell, why not go all out and have Steve Buscemi cameo as himself in the ruins?

9/11 has inspired films both literally (the forthcoming Reign Over Me) and metaphorically (Spike Lee's 25th Hour). It will continue to inspire many films over the next few decades, and while few will be as good as United 93, we can only hope that few are as bad as World Trade Center. The intention behind it may be laudable, but the handling of is trite, limp and sentimental - and that's unforgiveable. The greatest tragedy of this century has been reduced to The Towering Inferno's little brother.

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