Oliver Stone's Churchy 'World Trade Center'

Jesus shows up on 9/11.

By Steve Burgess 9 Aug 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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No match for reality of 'United 93.'

There was a time when Hollywood did not want to do Vietnam movies. Too painful, they thought. Then the dam broke and Vietnam movies became a genre.

9/11 films may never be that numerous, but with the release of Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, the second 9/11-themed movie this year, we seem to have passed the prescribed waiting period. And however small the category at present, it's inevitable that such movies will be compared with each other.

The critical acclaim already accorded Paul Greengrass's film United 93 is only one of the hurdles Oliver Stone faces. Another is Oliver Stone himself. In interviews, he has said that he was under strict orders to keep his bombastic style in check here, to dial back any heavy-handed politics and just tell the story of two New York City policemen trapped in the rubble of the fallen towers.

Give Stone credit. He tries. This is a man who would probably perform open-heart surgery with a meat hammer, and he does not harness easily. I suspect that audience opinion will differ strongly on whether or not he has overcome his dark side.

Plan of attack

Like Greengrass before him, Stone stakes out limited territory. He does not describe the mechanics of the attack in detail -- the first incoming plane is a shadow on a wall, the second a rumoured report from a rock radio station. Nor does he recount the numerous tales of tragedy and escape the media reported in the weeks that followed. The movie's focus is a small group of cops who run to a reinforced elevator shaft in the concourse area when the first tower collapses. Three cops survive initially; after the second tower drops it is down to two: John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). Stone does recreate some other aspects of the day, but leaves the rest to be shown on CNN, as Greengrass did in United 93.

Stone does a good job setting the scene and recreating the uncertainty that reigned. "Israel is gone," one cop insists after the strike on the Pentagon. "It's nuked!"

But once the towers fall, the focus remains mostly on the trapped cops and their families -- an understandable choice, but a dangerous one too. And it is here that Stone's movie diverges most sharply from United 93.

Greengrass showed remarkable courage in completely eliminating the personal angle from his account of the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers overpowered the hijackers. United 93 is startlingly spare and brutally direct -- a remarkable piece of moviemaking. By contrast, World Trade Center, frequently riveting, lapses into embarrassing and mawkish moments. Once the violins start playing, Stone can't help himself.

Dream delirium

Stone does some good work in depicting the nightmare of suspended terror that faces the families. An argument where one of McLoughlin's young daughters says to her brother, "You're only worried about your birthday" (Dad has promised to take him to a Yankee playoff game) rings horribly true. Another scene where Jimeno's wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), cannot abide a slow traffic light highlights the temporary dementia of a desperately worried spouse.

Then Jesus shows up. Really. Without warning, the screen is filled with the glowing image of a water-bearing Christ. It's not hard to guess what's going on: Jimeno is hallucinating. No doubt the moment is drawn from his own recollections. Still, a filmmaker is free to choose what he puts on screen -- I'm sure not all of the men's delirious visions were duplicated -- and it makes for a jarring moment. By including it, Stone opens himself up to accusations of pandering. Or to guffaws -- as some people did at the preview screening.

Another subplot, which involves a lapsed Marine who hears God's call to rescue the afflicted, reinforces the idea that Stone is intent on making a red meat, red-state movie. In his defence, the stories he recreates are true. But it is Stone's movie -- he's the one smacking us with big close-ups of the cross. When we are eventually told that the ex-Marine re-upped and fought two tours of duty in Iraq, the sense is that Stone has made a movie nostalgic for the moral certainties of four years ago. And the montage of people around the world grieving along with America seems doubly tragic today, a reminder of the vast pool of global goodwill Bush would soon piss away. Whether Stone wants us to ponder that point, or whether he just wants America to feel sorry for itself all over again, is impossible to tell.

As the film goes on, it gradually becomes more emotional, more manipulative. Still trapped in the rubble, McLoughlin talks to the hovering image of his wife Donna (Maria Bello). Again, these are the tales told by the men themselves. But the more I watched, the more I appreciated the cinematic choices of Paul Greengrass.

On a day when nearly 3,000 died and only 20 were rescued, focusing on two survivors probably makes dramatic sense. But uplift is a Hollywood disease, and many will bridle at the implication that 9/11 came with a happy ending.

World Trade Center, the film, is no disaster. But in a 2006 cinematic category that now numbers two major releases, Oliver Stone must settle for a distant silver.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.

Related Tyee stories: Steve Burgess compares United 93 and Flight 93, and figures out the formula for a good summer action blockbuster. Dorothy Woodend reviews Oliver Stone's movie Alexander.  [Tyee]

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