World Trade Center
Oliver Stone’s insidiously god-awful, "apolitical" Sept. 11 exploitation picture requires its audience to retreat into a sort of amnesiac amber. Forget today’s bloody headlines, it urges us, and how neo-conservatives repurposed Sept. 11 as the long-lusted-after excuse to attack a nation that had zippo to do with the atrocity itself. For World Trade Center to be effective as a feel-good movie about the worst of days, it’s also necessary for audiences to wallow in a dubious nostalgia particularly grotesque for those people who were in downtown New York that day. It willfully ignores the fact that glossing over the political significance of this most horridly political event amounts to nothing more than simple artistic cowardice, while also using the real-world bravery and suffering of its real-life protagonists as a sort of critical extortion.
Nominally about the undeniable courage and endurance of two New York Port Authority cops--John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña)--the movie’s inchoate core of all-American righteousness, relentless Christian imagery, and impotent fist-shaking is personified by Marine Sgt. Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon). Lantern-jawed, blue-eyed, and a fanatically patriotic Connecticut Baptist, Karnes gets a calling from God Himself to go to New York, save people, and, afterward, proclaim that "Somebody’s gonna pay for this!"
By movie’s end, and after an "uplifting" epilogue, an entirely unnecessary title card informs us that the real Karnes served two tours in Iraq, the inclusion of which, whether Stone wants to admit it or not, is commentary. This suggests that either the once left-leaning director is pulling a Christopher Hitchens, thus the movie’s gushing endorsement by far-right wags, or that the filmmaker views Karnes--inexplicably filmed with distorted lenses and low angles usually reserved for movie psycho killers--as a well-meaning dupe of his superiors’ empire dreams. The first possibility is simply annoying, the other has elements of high tragedy, but Stone appears to entertain both, perhaps in the cynical name of hedging his bets. Otherwise, World Trade Center accomplishes one amazing thing: It makes Sept. 11 boring.
It’s not the fault of Andrea Berloff’s script, which in more sure hands might have provided a decent armature. Nor is it the fault of Cage, who plays McLoughlin with a subtly self-doubting brand of taciturn that negates the actor’s tendency toward freak-show displays. Nor is it Peña’s Jimeno--also a heartfelt sketch--although you wonder at why his white counterpart is granted backstory flashbacks throughout the movie while the Latino Jimeno warrants only one quickie bit of exposition.
No, what’s wrong is 100 percent Stone. Center opens at dawn with a montage of Manhattan street scenes, cops going through their routines and so on. It’s effectively nerve-racking stuff in light of what’s to come. Then again, anything would be nerve-racking in light of what’s to come.
Glad for small mercies, we only see the World Trade Center’s collapse from the limited POV of McLoughlin and Jimeno, who, after rushing to the building’s lobby, end up buried and immobile under tons of rubble and waiting for rescue. After the money shots--including a single person jumping from the Towers in tasteful long shot and the urban abattoir of ground zero rendered pleasingly free of bloodied dead bodies--the movie downshifts into a flattened style meant to pass for big-"S" Seriousness but instead calls attention to itself by way of its very dullness.
Between scenes of McLoughlin and Jimeno trying to stay awake in the dark and rubble, their remarkably stoic wives--respectively played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal--fret about their spouses from inside their bucolic suburban homes. (Bello is able to understand the possible fear and pain of losing someone only after being helped to do so by an African-American woman: The Black Savant lives.)
Meanwhile, it’s really hard to listen to McLoughlin pointedly list all the disasters--natural and terrorist--that the New York Port Authority was prepared to deal with but "not this" without also thinking of that "bin Laden determined to strike in U.S." memo the Bush administration ignored. Hard for anyone but the filmmakers, apparently. Or maybe this is another, more sly bit of political commentary Stone claims not to be making. But in the end, all Stone really appears up to is using Sept. 11 to mourn, once again, the loss of a mythical white American innocence for what assumedly will be a predominately white baby-boomer audience--and no doubt turning a pretty penny while doing it.