Stone revisits the World Trade Center

by Glen Baity

Prior to stepping into the theater last Thursday, I’d given up on the question of whether Hollywood is making its first round of 9-11 films too soon. For better or worse the films are out there, and the question of whether they should be seen now rests solely with the viewer.

I do confess to having mixed feelings about seeing Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (the mixture was something like 10 percent curiosity and 90 percent dread). Not because I was concerned that Stone would inject any political commentary into the film – ten minutes in, it becomes apparent why politics receive no quarter here. But the raw emotion of that day is by no means in the distant past. Some will feel obligated to see it; some will cringe at the very thought. But anyone who takes the leap will find something of extraordinary power waiting for them.

The film tells the larger tale of 9-11 in what is, to my mind, the most effective way: through the eyes and individual experiences of those at Ground Zero. World Trade Center tells the story of two Port Authority cops trapped under the rubble of the fallen towers; their families, desperate for any scrap of information they can find; and ultimately their rescuers, who risked their lives to pull two strangers from deep within the wreckage.

World Trade Center begins before sunrise on what would be an improbably blue-skied Tuesday, following Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) to work on the early shift. What is most striking about the set-up is its chronicling of the routine business we all know, intellectually, must have happened, but has since been dwarfed by the enormity of the day’s events. To wit, there’s an utter normalcy of everything leading up to the first plane striking. Open signs click on, subway riders chat idly about Jeter’s latest homerun, and street sweepers go about their business – Stone portrays it all without comment, and the juxtaposition between the early-morning hours and the mid-morning explosion is consequently stark.

The way Stone portrays the attacks and the ensuing pandemonium is spot-on. It’s a detail that has been largely overlooked in the intervening years, but that most of us felt first, at least in my recollection, was unparalleled confusion and horror, and Stone conveys that well – Osama bin Laden doesn’t appear in this film, nor does al-Qaeda or the Taliban. On Sept. 11, it’s fair to say the causes of the event had little bearing on the rescue workers, who simply set about the long task of helping those who needed it.

There isn’t a bad performance in this film, and Cage and Peña deserve accolades for moving their own narrative along while pinned under immeasurable tons of steel and concrete. The ensemble cast of friends and family members keeping watch for them (of whom there are too many to list here) all do a commendable job of conveying the sickened aimlessness that comes with waiting for news of a loved one’s fate.

Much of the film takes place in the depths of the wreckage, as McLoughlin and Jimeno struggle to keep each other alive through simple conversation, encouragement and prayer. It’s in these scenes that World Trade Center disabused me of any notion that it comes ‘too soon.’ Stone’s focus, in the end, is the unimaginable heroism displayed by so many ordinary people that day. Though it seems sadly unfamiliar in our current social climate, there was a short period – before Americans took to calling each other Nazis, fascists and terrorist sympathizers – when we simply looked out for one another and stood in awe of our fellow citizens’ selflessness.

Though World Trade Center’s particular narrative is based on true events, some might find it dishonest that Stone uses the story of two people who lived to portray an event in which nearly 3,000 people died. But I think the symbolic lesson is appropriate: That in the face of such tremendous loss, the nation resolved to pull through. The eventual application of that resolve is a conversation for another day, and another film.

The largely positive reception this film has received so far is frankly encouraging – by September 2002 I wondered aloud if Americans had ever really been ‘united’ in any sense of the word and Stone’s film, five tumultuous years on, has convinced me that it wasn’t a mirage. World Trade Center might not bring us back to a state of shared emotional unity for any extended stretch, but it’s heartening to be reminded that as a nation, we retain that capacity. I’m not sure that message would’ve carried in another five years.

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