Review: World Trade Center
Oliver Stone makes the worst attack in American history seem practically humdrum in World Trade Center, his take on the darkest day—so far—in this undeclared war between radical Islam and the West.
Omitting any explicit reference to the enemy's philosophy, Islam, like this year's other plainly titled 9/11 movie, United 93, Stone reconstructs the attack from the narrow perspective of the folks next door. The result is inconsequential.
For the most part, those who worked in the Twin Towers, a vital nerve center of the nation's capitalist economy—who were targeted and slaughtered by jihad Moslems—are unseen. Stone's lens is transfixed on a couple of cops who were trapped after the skyscrapers collapsed.
It's like watching a movie about Pearl Harbor focused on survivors without reference to the Japanese or the U.S.S. Arizona, a sort of under-dramatized history in non-essential terms. To accept Stone's version, one must accept that 9/11 was a terrible day but not that terrible a day. In fact, Stone submits that September 11, 2001, represents "a lot of good."
The hell it does. World Trade Center is like one of those Holocaust movies where one person makes it out alive—Life is Beautiful comes to mind—presumably proving that the good is possible even in the worst of circumstances. This is the purpose of Stone's self-conscious follow-up to Alexander: to make us feel good about the worst day of our lives.
Using his New Yorker's knowledge to recreate lower Manhattan and the title's two-towered property, Stone capably sets the mood and he elicits good performances from the central cast. Whether the pair of Port Authority policemen played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena are driving into work while listening to country and western music or their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) are pining for their endangered husbands, World Trade Center is generally realistic.
But given the magnitude of the atrocity—and this is not intended to denigrate the real heroism on that day—the scale is too small.
The two profiled policemen are decent and honorable. After news trickles in about an unclear initial catastrophe at the Twin Towers, Cage's higher-ranking cop dispatches his men, urging them to protect themselves. When they enter the Twin Towers to execute rescue operations, it is an eerie, sickening scene (and we know reality was much worse).
They wander into the World Trade Center without a plan and, while this may be factually accurate, it opens the long, slow and, frankly, boring process of two cops caught in the crossfire. The buildings crumble in a rumbling shudder and, as Cage and Pena lay buried in the rubble, reminiscing about wives and kids in TV movie mode, Stone treats their common lives as a reason to celebrate.
Having been at ground zero or seen it on live television, we are in no mood. These lives on this day in that context hold interest only as they relate to the murder of 3,000 people. Stone romanticizes the rescue at the expense of recognizing the staggering loss.
The cast is fine. Gyllenhaal at the drugstore and Bello at the hospital behave exactly like someone braced for news of a loved one's death, and Cage and Pena work well considering they spend most of the time in half-darkness—yet it amounts to nothing much. Finding the good in mass murder is a metaphysical lie. It feels like grave dancing.
Most of World Trade Center is the men laying in reactive wait as they shift, writhe, talk and praise the Lord. Sadly, in the aftermath of an attack launched by religious warriors declaring that God is great, nearly every character becomes more religious. Hit by religious fundamentalists, Oliver Stone's infidels submit and choose faith.
This obsession with recreating 9/11 in primitive terms—i.e., anti-philosophical, without regard to the attack's meaning—echoes the tenor of our times. World Trade Center shows that Stone is not a rebel. He is the quintessential conservative, praying on his knees with his head buried in the sand, insisting that apocalypse has an upside.
Originally posted on Box Office Mojo, August 2006.