When the news broke last year that Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone would be making a docudrama about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, right-wing bloggers erupted with preemptive outrage, fully expecting the confrontational director to politicize sacred ground. As if politicians and special interests already hadn't used the iconography of Ground Zero and the 9/11 attacks for their own ends.
Stone's reputation as a leftist bomb-thrower preceded him. From Salvador in 1986 through Nixon in 1995, Stone cut a swath across American cinema as one of the country's most ambitious and provocative filmmakers. The bigger and more complex the issue, the more eagerly Stone sought engagement with it, including corporate greed (Wall Street), tabloid media (Natural Born Killers), Vietnam (Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July) and the conspiratorial nature of government (JFK, Nixon).
Sept. 11 looms larger than any event in recent American history and seems just the subject to jolt Stone's career out of its current flatlining status. Surprisingly, the most controversial thing about Stone's World Trade Center is its palpable lack of controversy. What begins as a genuinely gripping account of New York Port Authority police's first response to the attacks on the World Trade Center sinks into a tepid, conventional tale of Hollywood uplift.
Stone sets the stage with a predictable montage of New York City waking up on that fateful day, capturing the morning routines of both faceless commuters and central characters. A car radio even plays lyrics about the sun rising over New York City, just in case we hadn't noticed. The Port Authority has a "Hill Street Blues" kind of atmosphere as the police engage in locker-room ribbing and prepare for the day's business, like looking out for a runaway teenager. "It's important," says a senior officer, unaware of how the idea of "importance" will change completely within hours.
After a plane strikes one of the towers, officers rush to the scene, including (real-life) Port Authority veteran John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and rookie Will Jimeno (Crash's Michael Peña). Some sights may inspire frightening flashbacks in viewers, from office paper fluttering through the air to people plummeting from buildings. Stone uncovers new details as well, like the sudden, cannon-like booms within the buildings. Amid panic and rumors ("Israel -- it's gone! It's nuked!"), McLoughlin focuses on his training while acknowledging that there's "no plan" for an event like this. For the first 30 minutes, Stone focuses on the fear and camaraderie of the first responders with a force that matches the intensity of his work in Platoon.
The towers cave in with a roar, leaving McLoughlin and Jimeno trapped in dark, cavernous wreckage. In a dizzying shot, Stone's camera pans up, trailing a plume of smoke high above Ground Zero to take in Manhattan, then the Northeastern Seaboard, then a satellite. Ultimately, the camera intercuts to show the global reaction to the tragedy.
But once the story begins following Jimeno's pregnant wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and McLoughlin's wife, Donna (Maria Bello), the film's intensity leaks away. Gyllenhaal and Bello are both serious young actresses and not frivolous celebrities, yet their presence obtrusively reminds us that we're watching a fiction film. Their scenes have a flatness that violates the jittery, pseudo-documentary atmosphere Stone has cultivated so well up until now.
Most of the rest of World Trade Center plays as a waiting game, alternating between Allison and Donna worrying with their families and McLoughlin and Jimeno straining their necks through the rubble. There's little Stone can do here but bide his time until the tear-jerking resolution. He does, however, find some interesting moments. In the wreckage, the men face hellish experiences, including fireballs that flare from nowhere and a sidearm that discharges by itself. Peña and an unusually restrained Cage offer fine performances as professionals under pressure, talking about everything from "Starsky and Hutch" to the meaning of duty -- anything to keep from sinking into despair.
The makers of World Trade Center worked closely with such Sept. 11 families as the McLoughlins and the Jimenos, but for all the filmmakers' attempts to honor their experiences, the plot inevitably feels repetitive, even mundane. Stone's gauzily photographed flashbacks to moments of family quality time look like the stuff of life-insurance commercials.
World Trade Center's best subplots reveal some lesser-known 9/11 stories, most intriguingly the experience of Sgt. Dave Carnes (Michael Shannon), an apparently off-duty Marine who sees events on TV and, in effect, marches right into Ground Zero to help out. His dedication proves heartening even as his zeal inspires a little nervous laughter. When a fellow member of a rescue team asks what he should call the volunteer, Carnes replies with a crisp, "Staff Sergeant," as if revealing his first name would be too touchy-feely. Carnes proves crucial to the discovery of McLoughlin and Jimeno and seems destined to become the modern-day folk hero.
Throughout Stone's best films, the director chipped away at the "establishment" like an eternal '60s radical, but World Trade Center shows him building monuments instead. Perhaps Stone sought to distance himself from the charges of liberal heavy-handedness and factual recklessness that dogged his films -- with some justification, like his masterful 1991 mood piece, JFK. In press interviews, Stone has repeatedly insisted, "This is not a political movie," and all but admitted that he was on a short studio leash.
The news footage of statements from President George W. Bush and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani contains nothing to make them appear ill-informed or unready for leadership -- and, arguably, Sept. 11 was one day in which most Americans forgot their party affiliation. However, the dialogue by relatively unknown screenwriter Andrea Berloff, whether intended or not, supports the Bush administration's post-9/11 rhetoric. Such lines as, "They're gonna need some good men out there to avenge this," in combination with the film's coda, set up a subtle but unmistakable link between the World Trade Center attacks and the Iraq War, as if the one justifies the other.
Cage concludes the film with a voice-over comparable to Charlie Sheen summing up the Vietnam experience at the end of Platoon, yet the remarks prove empty and platitudinous. Perhaps the film too self-consciously attempts to heal the nation's still-raw wounds from that fateful day, miscasting Stone as a therapist instead of a provocateur.
Early criticism of World Trade Center, like that of Paul Greengrass' recent Sept. 11 film United 93, claims that even five years later it's "too soon" for movies to revisit that day, even through cinematic experiences. (Has it really already been two years since Fahrenheit 9/11?) If we truly want to comprehend the depth and complexity of Sept. 11, we'll have to get past films as conventional and shallow (despite their good intentions) as World Trade Center and look for those that can rise to a higher level of sophistication. From that perspective, 9/11 films aren't coming soon enough.