Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sarge, I just saw Jesus.

The opening moments of World Trade Center, silent images of Manhattan in the moments before dawn, have an understated grace. They suggest a subtler, more meditative film than the one we are about to see. The spell is broken with the title card, over an image of the New York skyline, that informs us of the following: "September 11, 2001." Because, apparently, we are complete fucking dimwits.

It's not that Oliver Stone has made a deliberately cynical movie with World Trade Center; the movie radiates with the obvious good intentions of its cast and crew. But therein lies the problem. Stone has worked hard to make an accessible, apolitical film designed primarily to honor those whose lives were lost on 9/11 and deify the city's cops and rescue workers. And while this is a worthy subject for a film, Stone's singlemindedly inoffensive approach serves to give one of the most significant days in human history as much emotional resonance as any generic disaster movie (Nicolas Cage actually says "RUUUNNN!!!" as the first tower collapses in slow motion). World Trade Center is a noble effort, but it's also a huge missed opportunity.

The film tells the true story of John McLoughlin (Cage, in one of his bad performances) and William J. Jimeno (Michael Peña), two average cops whose lives became inextricably linked with September 11. The moments leading up to the first collision are effectively tense, if only because we in the audience supply the anticipatory dread. But as McLoughlin and Jimeno join the rescue efforts, World Trade Center becomes flat and formulaic. The actors do not respond to the sight of bodies falling from the towers, or news that the crash was deliberate, with the spontaneous horror palpable that day; they feel like actors playing cops and firemen, reading their lines, afraid to make any risky choices. And that caution is at the heart of the film, which becomes evident as the towers collapse, leaving our protagonists trapped under twenty feet of rubble. This will not be a film that stares into the abyss, but an attempt to inspire and reassure. The last thing we need right now is to be cuddled.

Stone sidesteps potentially subversive moments, such as the subplot involving a batshit insane marine, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who is "called by God" to ground zero (imagine the movie Herzog could make out of this guy), in favor of easy platitudes and greeting card sentiments - apparently, 9/11 happened because they didn't love their wives better (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhal, two of the best actresses working today, are wasted in underwritten "crying wife" roles). I haven't written about United 93 because the task seems so overwhelming, but I'll have to soon - I'll refrain from listing the multiple reasons it's a better movie, but chief among them is the scenes of wives and husbands tearfully calling their spouses for the last time. That film posesses genuine pathos, because it understood the meaning of family in the face of absolute despair. Here, it's just an easy shortcut to audience identification. Weak.

The cinematography and editing are well done, but they serve no purpose other than to placate the middle-American audience the film is so transparently courting. The ending narration suggests that we've forgotten the spirit of patriotism and unity that brought us together on that day. Actually, we've never moved beyond it, and that's the problem. The thirty percent of Americans who still desperately cling onto the belief that our current war is worth fighting cannot let go of five years of American flag bumper stickers, "Whack the Osama" banner ads, and Toby Keith songs. They live for that shit; without it, they'd lose their minds. It's painful to see Stone, historically one of our most audacious cinematic muckrakers, shrug his shoulders and spoon-feed this claptrap to the masses. And worse, by leaving Karnes' jingoistic Rambospeak in the film but refusing to question it, Stone has made a film that could easily read by less media-savvy folk as a call to arms; that's not only bad filmmaking, it's irresponsible. I can't see any reason why he would make this World Trade Center other than his need to stay commercially viable, and that hurts. I'm still of the opinion that there's nothing inappropriate about making films about 9/11 (the subject has already given us one new classic). I just hope that we eventually get a World Trade Center movie that actually has something to say.

Also, I know that Jimeno really saw Jesus with a water bottle. It still looks totally goddamn ridiculous.

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