Stone's "World Trade Center" Does Not Tell The Story



One learns never to expect too much from Hollywood although one can at least hope. The initial promotions and reviews of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" about 9/11 seemed promising enough but the final result falls quite short, a shame because it could have been so much more; this, in particular, since Stone seemed to deliberately avoid his penchant for conspiracies and finger pointing. Yet, one found oneself almost hoping for some glimmer of his usual efforts to probe for meaning beyond the mundane in a story as resonant as this. But, instead of grappling with the underside of this world changing event, the implications of a major faith taken hostage for purposes of savagery, he completely ignores it and narrowly focuses on the suffering of two individuals buried beneath the carnage in a way that can only be described as sincere but vacuous.

The picture begins by providing a street level view of the horror and panic of the day. There are no images of hijacked jets slamming into towers, only the frightening roar of an engine and an eerie shadow racing across the avenue below. There are scenes of dust choked businessmen and other victims running from the building, falling debris, flames, and the horrible thumping of bodies slamming into the ground. We see Port Authority Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) leading a team of volunteers into the first tower.

When the building collapses, McLoughlin and patrolman Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) are trapped below the rubble. Their struggle to keep each other alive is interwoven with sequences involving anxious wives and families. The claustrophobic experience of the pinned men and the angst of their families are evoked, but by locking single mindedly on them, Stone seems oblivious to the overwhelming chaos of the day in which nearly three thousand individuals lost their lives. By also refusing to grasp the larger picture and identify the politics that led to the disaster, the movie loses context; it could just as easily have been a pair of workers caught in a collapsed mineshaft.

The redeeming light of the film is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a religious man and ex marine who is inspired to go to Ground Zero. He dons his old uniform and leads rescue workers to the men who are then resurrected from what would have been their ghastly tomb. Through the Karnes's figure, the story shifts from the despair of the wreckage to the heroism and compassion that lies deep within the American soul. It also demonstrates movingly the power of faith to lift us above our insular interests.

But, by producing what is in effect a rescue movie, by separating the suffering of the trapped individuals from the overarching cataclysm, the movie doesn't begin to engage the depth and magnitude of the event nor address the poisonous Islamist ideology of which 9/11 was only a single manifestation. There is a war going on, a twilight conflict between two visions of the world, one embracing freedom and light, the other darkness and violence. But you will not find it in "World Trade Center." For that, you will have to see its predecessor, the original 9/11 movie, Paul Greengrass' "United 93," which succeeds where "World Trade Center" falters: it captures eloquently the shock and revulsion of the day, speaks to the courage of ordinary Americans, and illustrates unwaveringly the brutal nature of the enemy.

Perhaps, we should interpret "World Trade Center" as a metaphor for the nation. As disconnected as the film is, so is our county.

Americans have little sense that we are at war. Our military is under funded and strained by relatively minor campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ground Zero remains a giant hole. The media is hostile to our war effort. Civil liberties zealots thwart efforts to gather intelligence. US Senators make outlandish statements about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, knowing they will be seized by the enemy for propaganda purposes. Democrats purge Senator Lieberman over Iraq and contest bitterly our military and surveillance initiatives, hoping to further divide an already fractured nation - as if engaged in debate over taxes and not a war against a mortal foe.

This from a nation that fielded armies in the millions on three continents against industrialized world powers during WW II, crushing the Nazis and the Japanese within four years of Pearl Harbor. Then we were united, fighting a maximalist war and intent on the destruction of our adversaries.

Today, we seem as desultory and aimless as "World Trade Center," unable to decide whether we are at war, whether to use our overwhelming strength to destroy our enemy, whether we are right or wrong in this conflict against religious extremists who slaughter innocents.


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