2 September 2006 | anhedonia
National tragedy as formula storytelling
Something surprising happened while watching Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center" - I realized how much more I appreciated Paul Greengrass' "United 93." Greengrass' film was lean, stripped of any backstory for any of the characters. Very simply, it told what happened that horrible day on the plane - though he used some license - and didn't wallow in needless sentimentality.
Stone, on the other hand and rather surprisingly, seems to have gone out of his way to make something that would be so palatable and inoffensive that it would turn out rather bland, above anything else.
The 45 minutes of "World Trade Center" are terrific. After offering us quick glimpses into the lives of Port Authority cops John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), Andrea Berloff's script gets us right into the attacks on the Twin Towers.
The crumbling of the towers, which still is incredibly difficult to watch, let alone fathom, is handled with taste, but also is awfully gripping. We get a real sense of the terror and panic and then Stone gets the claustrophobic atmosphere right. With close-ups of Pena and Cage amidst the ruins, he gets us so close, we can almost taste the rubble and concrete dust.
But that's the last time we really see or feel any sense of genuine, gripping storytelling in this film. I realize criticizing a film about 9/11, especially one that displays its American stars and stripes so blatantly, is tantamount to treason these days. After all, as this administration and its minions love to point out, if you disagree with them, you're not only unpatriotic, but also an appeaser of the villains. It's poppycock, of course. Dissent is undoubtedly American, but these chaps so love draping themselves in the flag that jingoism overwhelms all reason. Why bother with rational thought when you can scare people?
What struck me while watching the film is realizing how much goodwill was channeled toward the United States after the attacks and what's ultimately sad is how this president took all that goodwill and squandered it by launching an utterly pointless war in Iraq. We could have done so much good in the world, instead of now being one of the most hated nations in the world. And Bush has now turned 9/11 into a political slogan for political (and personal) gain.
The problem with Stone's film isn't so much the story, but how Berloff chose to tell it. According to Berloff, cops, rescue workers, even family members tend to enjoy speaking in exposition. There are moments that surely someone of Stone's calibre should have realized needed to be rewritten because the dialogue seems mediocre at best.
Where the film suffers is when the story cuts between the two trapped men and their families, especially their wives. Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin and the always wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal as Allison Jimeno never get much to do with their sorely underwritten roles. It's a true testament to Gyllenhaal's talent that she turns a rather sour role into a passionate, moving performance. Poor Bello, on the other hand, isn't that fortunate. She's relegated to spending more time than she should weeping.
The trouble with these scenes is not that Berloff tries to wring some emotion out of them, but that they come off as unabashedly sentimental. And the emotions are entirely unearned.
Pena proves, just as he did in "Crash" (2005), that he's able to be something special on screen. His character is far more engaging than Cage's; Pena's emotions come off without any artifice.
I can't help but feel that "World Trade Center" could have been the gut-wrenching experience Stone intended it to be had he and Berloff approached the story much in the way Greengrass did "United 93." Stone's movie is far from lean. It's padded with needless sentimentality and moments that just try so hard to earn some emotion, any emotion, that they come off as utterly false. And that's unfair to the people whose story is being chronicled here.
Watching Cage and Pena trapped should be gripping stuff. But even their dialogue is reduced to exposition. And when Berloff finally leaves the two men and their families, we get Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a man so moved by what he saw that he came down to the Twin Towers and proved to be McLoughlin and Jimeno's miracle. We all know Karnes is a real person, but I very much doubt that he speaks in bumper stickers. But that's exactly what Berloff has him do.
The first 45 minutes of the movie showed what Stone truly is capable of doing. The rest is rather tepid. And unbelievably forced. Who knew that Oliver Stone, of all people, would resort to formulaic storytelling. Perhaps he's been so stung by conspiracy accusations and was so keen on appeasing his critics and forgetting the execrable "Alexander" (2004) that he opted to make the kind of movie Ron Howard would make. That's not a compliment.