Oliver Stone Feints and Falls


World Trade Center, 2006. Written by Andrea Berloff, directed by Oliver Stone. Starring Nicholas Cage, Michael Pena, Jay Hernandez, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Armando Riesco, and Donna Murphy.

When I first heard that Oliver Stone was directing a film called World Trade Center, I was actually quite excited, in a pugilistic sense. Why, the old guy’s dusting off the gloves, ready for a skirmish again, eh? Ol’ Stone hasn’t made a decent film in years, and maybe it would take a maniac like him to bring a oddball humanity to this story, to show us the utter madness of ground zero. True, I was hoping we weren’t going to have his usual conspiracy tales, a fictionalized Fahrenheit 9/11, with visions of President Bush ignoring warnings of impending doom, secret Pentagon meetings, jet fighters shooting United 93 out of the sky. Even if that were the case at least we’d get some of his usual bravado, or so I naively thought. JFK, Platoon, Salvador, Wall Street, even Nixon are brimming over with crackpots and their theories, and Stone manages to either cast nutcases in the lead (James Woods, Eric Bogosian, Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, Anthony Hopkins) or draw out edgy performances from actors who are normally dull as stale bread (Kevin Costner, Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas). He is, or was, a filmmaker with tremendous passion, a man who seem consumed by whatever story he was wrestling with. Alas, this passion has faded. The pugilist is at rest.

World Trade Center is an unbelievable bore. It is maudlin and feeble. It fails so miserably at understanding the odd nature of heroics, fails to come to grips with the strange horror of relatives who can only wait for their loved ones, fails to even do the simple task of making the events of that day terrifying and confusing. World Trade Center is an abject failure.

The story is simple: two officers of the Port Authority Police Department, John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) are among a group of first responders to attend to the victims of the WTC attacks. We see, at first, them going about their day, the lazy commute to work on this gorgeous day, everyone all chummy and happy, New York a Guernica on the verge of destruction. For a few minutes the day unfolds and then the news begins to leak out that the towers were hit, and the action, such as it is, begins. The officers arrive at the scene, moving slowly through the chaos, amazed at what they’re seeing, reminded again and again that they have no plan for something like this. But bravery reigns and some of policemen and firefighters rush in. The towers collapse only two of their crew to survive, a good twenty feet below the surface of the rubble. The film details their conversations as they try to keep each other alive, a good two hours of hopes and hallucinations as they await rescue. In addition, Stone cuts away to the families struggling to cope with the possible loss of their loved ones.

Forget for the moment that Stone has chosen an odd story to capture the whole of September 11. Odd, because although McLoughlin and Jimeno’s story is incredible, it is hardly surprising–these stories have been all the rage, in the news and on the bestseller lists for almost five years now. Give Paul Greengrass credit, in United 93, for having the bravery to attempt an original story, one that was riveting in part because we were seeing something had not seen or heard before.

That aside, a good filmmaker might still have captured this day and all its visceral horror. If I seem a bit blase about the bravery of the two men, it’s only because Stone seems utterly freaked by his material and the need to honor the heroes of the day with hollow (and ultimately false) imagery. What happens on-screen did not occur that day: no police officers stood around, lips tight, nostrils flared, asking, in a solemn voice, if there are any volunteers to enter the buildings. No one paused, staring at the burning towers, eyes thinned, and then slowly respond, jaws tight with determination. Nor did McLaughlin then nod with pride and mumble “OK”. Cops don’t act that way, not in their daily routine and not when the tallest skyscraper in the city has a pair of jumbo jets buried deep inside them. In Platoon, Stone understood that bravery is a response to the sudden explosion of events, it is the need to become a part of this something larger, and doesn’t entail people standing around for cheap photo-ops. Has he lost the understanding that you glorify these men and women by simply showing them at their best, and not making statues of them?

Nicholas Cage is utterly out of his league, which seems to be his modus operendi in half his flicks. Cage can’t seem to get his head screwed on straight. I’m not aware of a better actor who makes so many dunderheaded choices. But all the actors and actresses are wasted here, from Maria Bello’s uber-mom to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s sitcom-tragic wife. Grief and endurance are bizarre creatures, especially with children involved, but Oliver Stone treats the day’s suffering with slo-mo and soft focus, making World Trade Center appear as if it were an Irwin Allen film for the Hallmark Hall of Fame.

Oliver Stone has been accused–rightly in some cases–of making propaganda, and World Trade Center is another exercise in propaganda. The stone-faced Marine (played by Michael Shannon, who is actually a very good character actor), who abandons his worthless job to pray over the book of Revelations and head off to ground zero (and then to two tours in Iraq), is one example of his bellowing nature. The guy is unreal, again slowly going about his response to this tragedy, muttering “we’re at war” and “we’ll need a few good men”. So, too, are the shots of the citizens of the world weeping over the footage of that day’s events. There’s no doubt that the world was with us that day, just as there can be no doubt that millions of people cried that day. But a filmmaker who relies on footage of people crying simply doesn’t trust his source material to elicit that response in us. And if Stone is trying to show the goodwill that we as a nation have squandered since 9/11, he is doing so with not a trace of the irony necessary to provoke such feelings.

But his message is not what troubles me. As a piece of propaganda, World Trade Center is what it is. But WTC’s crime is that it is dull and tedious. Stone has never been a Leni Riefenstahl, but he’s not even his old entertaining self. Like most propagandists, Stone doesn’t want us to think, he wants us to feel. And yet, instead of provoking feelings, he bludgeons us with images so static–like soft-focus flashbacks of Cage sawing wood with his kid or laughing over pregnancy test results–that one can only emerge from the theater tired and cranky. The only thing he left out were saving dogs and cats in danger… a plot line that might actually make a better film than this one.

World Trade Center is not worth watching on any level, unfortunately. If you’re serious about cinematically honoring the heroes of that day you have good fortune in the fact that United 93 has arrived the same year. Or watch Munich or Cache. One honors the victims of 9/11, the others are comments on terrorism, but above all, they won’t put you to sleep.