Oliver Stone seems an unlikely choice to tell the first mainstream drama about 9/11, but here he is with World Trade Center. This is the story of two officers trapped in the rubble of the tower (Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena), the efforts of those outside to rescue them (Michael Shannon and Stephen Dorff) and their families attempts to stay hopeful (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal).I don’t envy the task that was laid before Oliver Stone with World Trade Center. Our media environment has sped up the rate in which we can deal with tragedy or triumph through entertainment. But the wounds from 9/11 were still very raw and had changed our overall national worldview in such a drastic way that the insanity we delved into afterward.
Stone is not suited to make most of the film we see here. He was hired to make a stirring tale that serves as a tribute to the survivors and the rescuers who were lost and recovered as a result of 9/11. That means that Stone has to delve into hopeful emotions and, honestly, he is not capable of that as a creator. The many flashback and exposition scenes that Cage, Pena, Bello, and Gyllenhaal reek of a schmaltzy Americana that feels unnatural in the context of the film, let alone Stone’s overly colorful renditions of these moments.
The moment’s where Stone’s strengths shine through cycle between painfully awkward and effective. The awkwardness is never more clear than in any scene involving Michael Shannon. His talent for intensity and paranoia is perfect for Stone, but not so perfect for the saintly Marine that he is intended to be. Shannon’s performance is like asking the original Terminator to get a cat out of the tree. He’s focused to the point that his selfless actions take on an uncomfortable edge and the eventual rescue feels less of a triumph because of that.
Stone’s predilection toward nightmares is better suited to the moments where Cage and Pena are desperately trying to keep themselves invested in their own lives. The twisted mess of concrete and steel recalls a man-made jungle that is not too far removed from the hell of Platoon. A moment that could have been cheesy, and I think you found it this way, was when the perfectly formed fireballs threatened to incinerate the two desperate men. I loved the visual because it shows that, on some level, Stone is presenting this story as a man-made disaster.
Those moments of effectiveness don’t make up for the other shortcomings. All we need is to look to Stone’s past and see how his involvement in this film was a mistake. He has had no use for heroes, especially where war is concerned, and I have to wonder who he thought the hero really is in this film and what purpose they served. At the basest level of plot the five men we open the story with accomplish nothing aside from getting killed and then rescued. Their rescuers are people like Shannon who growls at his coworkers that “We’re at war and no one realizes it.” A much more difficult film could have been made from all these same components, but that would have required a level of courage and willingness to stare down professional suicide that no one here had in mind.We are in almost perfect agreement here. World Trade Center comes off as primarily a sloppy mix of reverent, ungrounded self-importance (which makes it seem strangely disingenuous), efforts to render the horror of the day that often aren't executed at a level evoking reality, and melodrama that's insulting. The only reason this isn't a firmly terrible movie is that, as you say, Stone doesn't seem to have the guts to do anything truly distinct—he treats 9/11 like many other disaster movies, with an ensemble of characters each of whom dutifully play out their expected part.
I've asked as much before, and you're echoing it here, but what happened to the director who made Platoon? Certainly making a movie so directly about 9/11 requires a delicate sense of taste—audacity of vision has to be tempered with a respect for those who actually lived the events first-hand, as well as an understanding of what the images you create are conjuring in the national consciousness.
But the problem is that nothing in this movie resembles reality for more than 15 seconds at a time. While the claustrophobic scenes of Cage and Pena under the rubble could have built some Das Boot-level intensity if Stone had the courage to support them, we constantly get breaks where he returns to the other characters, shifting focus so often that we can't connect with the trapped men or their families. And I'll admit it, when the fireballs came rushing through the corridor of rubble and Cage began screaming all “how'd it get burned?!” Wicker Man-style, I giggled a bit, but that was literally the only moment of over-the-top Cage Rage we got in the movie. Give him and Pena some time to sit talking in the dark, claustrophobic frame Stone effectively creates, without giving the audience an easy out via cutaways to other characters, and he could have had an intensely personal look at death that would have done real justice to lives lost in 9/11 than his poorly contrived mosaic film.
And to shift focus to those moments with the families — the dialogue makes it seem like the actors are running through rough rehearsals of their scenes, filling in with what they've heard in other movies while they wait for the actual script to be finished. I understand he's using the stories and lives of real people here, but isn't it more insensitive to take the event and turn it into a Lifetime movie than to risk offending by coming too close for comfort in your on-screen realization? Shouldn't it be too close for comfort to warrant being done in the first place?
Stone may have fallen into the “is it too soon to make a movie?” trap — wherein we sit around hand-wringing about the length of time that must pass before we can acknowledge a tragic historical event in popular media rather than asking, whether 1 day or 10 years later, is this representation of said event necessary and actually doing something valid?
Let's quickly go back to this idea of World Trade Center as a man-made disaster pic. It's an interesting idea to position the first major comprehensive representation of 9/11 as that of a man-made disaster, and certainly one that, executed very carefully, could have produced the right kind of conversation — however, here all the similarities seem to be on the superficial level. It's as if Stone crammed details of the attack into a pre-existing disaster movie template, which is ever more baffling considering that such movies are typically made for entertainment and cheap catharsis.
So, where’s the controversy?
Stone directly avoids it this time around – which is a credit to the respect he tried to treat the material with and to his final detriment to both the film and his artistic sensibilities. He and screenwriter Andrea Berloff worked closely with the survivors to get their stories right. Not everyone was happy, but there was little controversy that greeted the film partly because of this.
You hit it — the movie is so neutered that the only controversy would have to come from accusations that it was too soon or that he was exploiting tragedy. He certainly is not exploiting it, because the movie would have to offer some measure of entertainment or sensationalism to be doing that.
How did Stone capture the zeitgeist this time?
Through the subject more than anything else. It was released the same year as Paul Greengrass’ United 93, which was far more successful though its efforts to recreate than to entertain. Both films spawned a national conversation about whether we’re ready for entertainment to tackle 9/11 but only United 93 is worth remembering. That cut to black in the end is as terrifying a reminder of the effects of terror and the strength of people to unite under consequences as brutal as they are final. Stone’s film just offered some cold reassurances of our ability to bootstrap out of tragedy and little else.
The comparison to United 93 is a great one, because there was a movie that sought to preserve the memory while still as fresh and visceral as possible the best approximations of what happened that day, specifically on that flight. It acts more in the vein of a piece of journalism or an oral history than Stone's Sunday Night Movie approach.
You also mentioned Michael Shannon – his level of righteous zealotry reflects the zeitgeist pretty spot on (or at least prefigures the level to which it would rise in political discourse), even if in doing so it makes the man seem like a goddamn lunatic.
That’s fine, but is it any good?
Sadly, no. The story is not sanitized of physical detail but constantly distracts itself from staring at the horror of what happened. These constant distractions keep any plotline from gaining traction. Plus the film has Cage in pensive mode, which is when he is at his most boring, which Shannon still looks like he’s one step away from eating stray animals raw. Bello and Gyllenhaal are talented performers who have nothing to do here but cry the day away in frustration. The only one who escapes intact is Pena, who here and in Crash showed that he is capable of elevating misguided material in his scenes.