Modest Goals for a Big Subject
Oliver Stone's World Trade Center is the second major movie to emerge this year that literally re-enacts events from September 11, 2001. Earlier this year, Paul Greengrass's United 93 was released, and the two movies couldn't be more different in approach. Where United 93 is an evenhanded depiction of tragic events eliciting unique and personal responses from each viewer, World Trade Center wants its audience to respond in a collective, singular manner, using whatever manipulative tactics it deems practical.
This doesn't mean the movie is poor, necessarily. Stone has never been known for subtlety -- I think he wields the sledgehammer more than any current director -- and yet he's usually been able to craft a film worth seeing, mostly because his methods are incorporated into an overall boldness of vision. Stone isn't shy about making his feelings known, nor about how obvious it is that he desires big things from his movies -- forceful story delivery, clear points of view, and strong reactions from his audience.
So what's disappointing about World Trade Center, which centers on the true-story plight of two Port Authority police officers (Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña) trapped under rubble after the two towers collapse, isn't so much Stone's tone of approach, which could've been foreseen. It's perhaps the simplicity -- some might even say lack of depth -- of its mission. Ever since the events of 9/11, America has been addressing the tragedy in different ways, trying to make sense of it, measuring responses to it, learning how deep the wounds are, and what parts of the psyche they've reached. United 93 offered a reflection point after four-and-a-half years, allowing us to recalibrate our view of the subject. Stone's film, on the other hand, isn't going for anything more contemplative than "remember the heores" and "people are capable of wonderful heroism."
Those are noble ideas; it's touching that the movie only wants to be a tribute and a memorial. But that makes this movie similar to others lauding the efforts of a band-together rescue mission, or, more broadly, the struggles of underdogs facing incredible odds. It isn't complex material; one veteran of this subject is Ron Howard, and movies like Apollo 13 do feel like the precedents here. Stone, whose previous works reveal some amount of cynicism, isn't Howard, and his attempts to evoke the true heart of Americans comes across less gracefully, with familiar character personalities -- crusty and colorful New Yorkers, down-to-earth working class men, strong and devoted wives -- going through the usual motions of a crisis situation (hang in there, stay with me, I'm not gonna let you die).
As the movie is based on true events, I began to wonder just how much of these moments rang true. I wouldn't doubt that this is the way we act, react, and talk in times of crisis. I do believe, however, that such moments can be delivered with an honesty, without an oversell that highlights its intentions as drama. Stone strives for cheers and tears by going the extra mile, or two, or three (we're given a slew of heartstring yankers, from flashbacks to visions to humorous, mushy ironies involving baby naming; we're even given an angry ex-Marine to inject a dose of jingoism). At some point, the audience should be trusted to meet the material half way.
Stone fares much better in the film's pyrotechnics, and the sections that effectively bookend the movie are awesome feats of production value and special effects. The moment when the buildings collapse is as terrifying as anything I've ever seen on screen. And once the rescue attempts are underway, an urgency develops that very naturally brings to the surface our common faith in the best that people can offer.
But if World Trade Center only wants to remind us that people have "a best to offer" when the chips are down, we're not given much new to take away. In our hearts, we know this and we like being reminded of it, but the specific subject of 9/11 is still going to hurt for a long time; and with so much to explore and investigate, it's disheartening that World Trade Center can boil down its own exploration of the subject with a summarizing end-of-movie voiceover. The movie means well, and we can appreciate the sentiment; it works on the level of heartbreaking spectacle, but it doesn't add more to our wisdom.
(Released by Paramount Pictures and rated "PG-13" for intense and emotional material, some disturbing images and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.