Stone Cold

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is brutally effective. But what is he after?

Nicolas Cage in World Trade Center

Going in, it was the last thing I’d have expected: that an Oliver Stone-directed movie about 9/11—especially one containing not one but two visions of Jesus—would make me cry four times, one of them during a vision of Jesus. After United 93, a far more sober re-creation of the events of that doomed day, left me thoroughly unnerved but strangely unmoved, I had decided that perhaps, as hecklers chided standup comics in the early days after the attacks, it was still “too soon.” And despite the undeniable power of Stone’s World Trade Center (Paramount), I still think maybe it is. Five years after the day that ripped up our country and our world in ways we’re still struggling to comprehend, any fictional (or even thinly fictionalized) rendering of that day’s story feels ponderous, freighted with the duty to be not a but the 9/11 movie. And that requirement, in turn—that a piece of popular entertainment be the vehicle through which we understand and mourn our losses—feels somehow slightly obscene.

When Stone’s movie is at its best, it simply ignores the temptation to say everything about 9/11, instead keeping its focus tightly trained on the two domestic dramas at its center. In so doing, it forfeits all possibility of suspense. We know going in that the two cops at the movie’s center, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) will live through their ordeal, pinned beneath rubble in the concourse between the two towers; after all, McLoughlin, Jimeno, and their wives served as consultants on the movie, and Stone has testified in interviews to his obsessive attention with getting the details right. Like United 93, World Trade Center proceeds with an airless, Spam-in-a-can sense of inevitability; as the characters debate about whether the first plane to hit the tower was a light aircraft, we wince with dramatic irony. The difference is that this time, not everything will turn out as awful as we can possibly imagine, at least not for the film’s two lucky protagonists.

The film cuts between the men languishing in the dark hole beneath the towers, slipping in and out of consciousness, and their frantic wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) waiting for word as cable-news anchors squawk in the background. McLoughlin and Jimeno exchange small talk about their families to keep each other going. Then they scream in terror as chunks of burning rubble rain down at random intervals onto their trapped and partly crushed bodies. These exchanges are surprisingly dynamic, given that the protagonists are less than talking heads—they’re mere talking faces, immobilized and caked with grime.

The above-ground scenes serve as a periodic release from the almost unbearable intensity of the underground ones. But they also capture some of the wired atmosphere of those first days after the attack, when whole families—even those who didn’t have a relative in the towers—clustered around the TV set like cavemen around a fire.

It’s when Stone tries to get all world-historical on us that the movie stumbles. An example: In one uncharacteristically fancy shot, the camera pulls back from Cage and Peña’s concrete trap, sails through the hole in the wreckage above them, and continues to rise until it shows us all of Lower Manhattan and, finally, the whole Earth from space, as seen by a satellite. It’s an attention-grabbing but ultimately empty special effect, and a betrayal of the intimate story we’ve been pulled into caring about. After all of that quiet, painful face time spent with two trapped suffering men, being hauled into outer space and reminded that this is an Event that Changed the World feels crass, not to mention condescending. McLoughlin and Jimeno’s descent into hell makes for a hell of a story, far truer and more moving than an attempt to represent the whole day on an epic scale, like some dreadful remake of The Towering Inferno.

In a panel hosted by HBO shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Stone drew fire for envisioning a “bullet of a movie” that would give screen time to both the victims’ and the terrorists’ points of view; he compared such a movie to The Battle of Algiers, the legendary faux-documentary about the Algerian struggle for independence from France. World Trade Center is assuredly not that movie. Nary a Middle Eastern character appears in the film, nor a reference to al-Qaida or Osama; I’m not even sure the word “terrorism” is ever uttered, except perhaps by the TV anchors who natter in the background. Stone has insisted in interviews that his movie is resolutely apolitical. But the very decision to dramatize this subject matter is by definition a political statement, however vague; how could there be a purely personal film about one of the most public events in world history?

Stone is one of those rare polarizing figures with the ability to piss off both the right and left; the former for obvious reasons, the latter because his paranoid bluster gives heft to the conservative caricature of liberals as a pack of crazies. Here, he equivocates between the two; whatever the color of your state, you’re likely to choke up when McLoughlin and Jimeno are reunited with their weeping families. Is Stone pulling punches in the attempt to sell movie tickets after the debacle of Alexander and the general decline of his fortunes in Hollywood? I tend to think not. Nutty as he is, Stone’s always struck me as a true believer, even a swooner. You don’t go from lionizing Castro (in his 2003 documentary Comandante) to lionizing the U.S. Marines out of a sense of political expediency.

For all its crude effectiveness as a true-life melodrama of survival, World Trade Center doesn’t do much with 9/11, except to sentimentalize it for popular consumption. But sentimentality itself is a wildly useful political tool—one of propaganda’s ultimate aims has always been to make us cry. What exactly Stone is propagandizing for is another question, one that we may have to wait for his next movie to answer.