Stone’s latest film misses the mark
As odd as this may sound, World Trade Center isn t really about 9/11. WTC is, for the most part, a Hollywood disaster movie marketed, and branded, as the first major film about the most important incident of the new century from Hollywood s most controversial director who, alas, opted to take the easy road for the first time in his career.
The discussion of how long it would take Hollywood to tackle the subject of 9/11 started almost immediately, just a couple of months after the incident in 2001. The subject was deemed to be too sensitive for the distraught and hypersensitive general public to be directly depicted on screen anytime soon. It wasn t until last year when two major Hollywood filmmakers (Oliver Stone and Paul Greengrass) decided to shoot two different films about the attack.
Released a few months ago in the US, Greengrass s United 93 was shocking, truthful, thought provoking, terrifying and over all, one of the best movies of the year. The film wasn t a big commercial success due to, primarily, the absence of any recognizable stars, excessive grittiness and grim tone.
On the other hand, WTC is studded with Hollywood stars including Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Stephen Dorff, and Maggie Gyllenhaal in addition to a $70 million budget and a large marketing plan. The film was met with considerable commercial success yet the reaction from most of the world s filmgoers, and Stone s fans alike, has been muted.
WTC tells the true story of Port Authority officers John McLoughlin (Cage) and William J. Jimeno (Michael Peña) who go off on a mission to evacuate one of the towers and find themselves trapped underground shortly after the second plane hits the other building. The film spends most of its 129 minutes recounting the excruciating hours these men spent underneath the ruins and the outcome of their absence on their families.
The film starts with a short montage of pre-9/11 everyday New York life showing us the daily routine of the city and the worry-free state of a stable, pleasant world about to be shattered in minutes. But by choosing to concentrate on only the story of these two survivors, to ignore all the political implications and to refrain from showing the wider magnitude of the disaster, the film fails both in its intention to induce emotions of sympathy and hope or to present an apolitical film about an event that s impossible to comprehend without politics, while the loss Stone hoped to substantiate with the earlier footage never comes into full realization anytime in the film.
As a human drama, the film works only in the first half when the two helpless men are faced with more complications. Cage and Peña s performances are top notch and their ordinary conversations are funny, touching and realistic. But the second half doesn t offer anything more than two confused, concerned wives (Gyllenhaal and Bello) facing the assumption that their husbands might be dead. Some mushy flashbacks are forced between some scenes to up the sentimentality tempo and consequently, eliminate any feeling of genuineness towards the material. It s possible that Stone, famous for controversial political films such as “JFK and “Nixon, wanted to direct a commercial piece after his last cinematic catastrophe that was “Alexander. But sentimentality isn t Stone s forte and the film ends up leaving the audience cold and unmoved.
The major problem is that WTC was released at a time when the notion of American heroism has been destroyed by Bush, the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib and America s complacency toward the last Israeli attack on Lebanon.
Hollywood films, from the silent movies of D.W. Griffith, the westerns, musicals and latest superhero flicks, have always embodied the American dream and suggested the prospect of a world that is fantastical, yet real. Nevertheless, the ugly repercussions of 9/11 smashed every piece of that myth and, for an ordinary Egyptian, it s hard to disregard that the compassionate men portrayed on the screen would later commit acts of racism, murder and violently curb freedom of expression.
World Trade Center is a film with a vision irrelevant to our troubled times; a film that wants to move its audience without knowing how. We re living in an age where heroes must be flawed and human in order to achieve any degree of credibility, and that s why films like Munich, the aforementioned United 93, and the upcoming Flags of our Fathers work so well. Stone could ve made a compelling film, a film that tries to convey the shock and damage inflicted suddenly upon a nation, a film that restores our illusionary faith in a place that once seemed too good to be true. But he didn t, and judging by the indifferent response of Egyptian filmgoers, it will take more than a simple-minded film to accomplish that.