“Art is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having lived in a difficult and sometimes chaotic world . . .This isn’t to say that art has to be comforting; obviously, it can be deeply disturbing”. Don DeLillo
If we believe novelist DeLillo, then the September 11 massacre of innocents, with its visceral shock that circled the globe, deserves a film that will disturb us into thinking and taking stock of its breadth and effects, and indeed it got one. That was Paul Greengrass’s riveting United 93, which clearly and scrupulously set down the facts, even though the media managed to marginalize the production with anxious front-page cries of “it’s too soon!”
As a document, as a memorial, and as a work of film art, Oliver Stone’s well-meaning but pedestrian World Trade Center shrivels next to United 93, opting for the comfort-food route of tears and triumph, even while the event has only grown in awful resonance. The 21st century’s Pearl Harbor continues to ripple out circles of catastrophe, but instead of a grown-up inquiry into the harsh, dark post-9/11 reality, Stone has produced a celebration that buries the tragedy’s meaning and disturbing legacy much as Hollywood initially employed digital trickery to erase the twin towers from the Manhattan skyline.
Rather than too soon, it’s considerably too late for such soothing balm, in light of the tragedy’s hijacking to justify the preordained Iraq invasion, not to mention the subsequent torching of civil liberties and legitimizing of military torture. This simple story, following five Port Authority cops’ ordeal trapped when the concourse between the towers collapses on them, represents Stone’s attempt to recapture that September 12th vibe of “we are all New Yorkers today”, but the repercussions that we are now condemned to live through have changed the playing field: the film has overshot its moment because we are all victims now.
Despite his past credentials as a bedrock leftie, conspiracy maven extraordinaire, and Fidel Castro documentarian, Stone has publicized that World Trade Center is “not a political film”. But why not? Entire forests have fallen to supply print stock for all the reportage, analyses and debates that have ensued, while the 9/11 families’ demand for a no-holds-barred investigation have been ignored. So where is the high-octane quest for truth that drives JFK and Born on the Fourth of July? And what is the reliably profane author of Salvador and Wall Street doing with Andrea Berloff’s script that chloroforms vernacular expression into “friggin'” and “freakin'”?
Based on actual accounts of survivors, the none-too-inventive screenplay shackles the tale to a tiresome TV-movie structure. Detached from the overarching tragedy that thunders on its periphery, this story unfolds in the simplistic rhetoric of soap opera, toggling back and forth from the men in darkness (photographed from static angles) to the wives who pace and wait, earthy Maggie Gyllenhaal in New Jersey and sensitive Maria Bello in New York. Ironically, while nearly 3000 people died, this movie drains itself of universal character by sticking to its family-friendly formula. It would take a BuÃ±uel or Resnais or Brecht to find a bolder form to contain the event’s scope.
After some effective initial action that vividly conveys the apocalyptic tremors, the choking dust and ash, and the hellish fireballs, the visuals largely get mired in the darkness or in suburban living rooms. Still, Stone does pack in plenty of folks-watching-TV montages in order to use the day’s epic news footage. In a stylistic flourish to match the eagle eye shot in Alexander, Stone’s camera rises up from the cops’ claustrophobic predicament into the light, up into an aerial view of the city, and then soars majestically higher to a satellite transmitting the news to listeners around the world in different languages.
Meanwhile the trapped men, Nicholas Cage and Michael PeÃ±a, keep each other going (“If you’re feeling pain, it means you’re alive”), though Cage has to sputter “People don’t like me because I don’t smile a lot”. Whether or not this is an actual quote, Cage’s shouty and surprisingly uneven performance makes us doubt it. Then, not one but two visions of Jesus, complete with sacred heart, appear emerging from a white flame (and carrying a bottle of water). Interest dwindles as the script overplays some ostensibly cute but protracted give and take about names for Gyllenhaal’s baby, followed by mini-flashbacks in glamorous Romance Channel soft focus, and even an opportunity for consumerist product placement (Gyllenhaal: “I’m walking around [name of giant drugstore chain] like nothing’s wrong”).
In its final stretch, the film’s ideology starts to show, injecting a vein of gratuitous militarism. While real-life rescuers Chuck Sereika and Scott Strauss enjoy not much more screen time than the few seconds it takes to read this sentence, a new character privileged with the movie’s attention emerges. Dave Karnes, an alpha-male neocon type, greets the 9/11 news by declaring “This country’s at war!” After visiting church, he gets a marine buzzcut and trades his suit and tie for camouflage fatigues. Traveling to ground zero, this lone Rambo walks straight into the smoking ruins even as beleaguered firemen caked in dust and blood walk out. Reaching the trapped men, the larger-than-life Karnes and another marine announce “We’re United States marines! You are our mission!” Stone even shows Karnes resolving to re-enlist (“You’re gonna need some good men out there to avenge this”), while the end-credits note that he served two tours in Iraq. In an America that now aches for regime change, Stone also makes a political choice to show George Bush not in his shifty-eyed paralysis in the “My Pet Goat” classroom but only in his later scripted statement from the safety of Louisiana.
As it moves resolutely toward triumphalism, ironing out the event’s complexity till it yields a feel-good narrative, the movie evades how the visceral shock of the World Trade Center catastrophe fanned heartland anxieties into a flag-flourishing fever, blinding America from seeing the vast and monstrous power-grab that would rain shame on the U.S. with its espousal of torture, rape, and murder. World Trade Center stands mute before the greater tragedy that has now killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, plus almost as many Americans as the 9/11 attack, while pain and loss continue to this day, with no happy endings for real-life participants.
While Paramount’s marketers court endorsements from ironbound conservatives like the Christian Coalition and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, they are also pumping the studio’s MTV unit to stimulate buzz among teens thought to desire an easy-to-digest dramatization of what happened. But how will this film enlighten them? After suffering ridicule for daring to question Wall Street’s ethics and the veracity of officially spun history, Stone has here turned blandly inoffensive with a disappointingly narrow vision when his more characteristic historical sweep is needed. Isn’t this America feeling sorry for itself while willfully ignoring the waves of violence unleashed as misbegotten payback throughout the Middle East? Anyway, why didn’t the teens go to United 93, which set out the dots for everyone to connect?
The film’s most stirring authentic quote comes from a fireman: “Looks like god made a curtain from the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see”. But now, as we foresee the twilight of American power through endless war, as we slide into downward mobility sans safety nets, we need to handle the whole disturbing truth. Like the rescuers attending the Reichstag fire, these public servants were admirably ready to risk their lives, but it’s a lie to pretend that their sufferings are what history will remember.