It’s hard to fight back tears, (not just once but frequently) during the two plus hours of director Oliver Stone’s depiction of 9/11 and the improbable story of two police officers who were dragged, half dead, from its devastating rubble. That said, it’s worth noting that WTC, while qenuinely powerful, derives much of its impact from what audiences bring to it rather than the other way around. As we near its fifth anniversary, 9/11 has not yet become history; it remains a raw wound of personal, lived memory for those in the audience. Forget whether it can now be understood in some geopolitical context; can it be re-lived with anything approaching detached objectivity?
Working from a script by first-time screenwriter Andrea Berloff, Stone chronicles the movements of Sgt. John McLaughlin, (Nicholas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno, (Michael Pena) of The New York Port Authority as they rushed into the Trade Center complex with three fellow policemen minutes after the first tower was struck. Because McLaughlin had been responsible for overseeing disaster response in the wake of the first attack on The Trade Center in 1993, he took his squad down into the lower level of the structure and directed them to an area adjoining one of the elevator shafts moments before the entire complex collapsed. Two of McLaughlin’s men were killed immediately; another died shortly thereafter in a vain attempt to free Jimeno’s crushed leg, leaving the sergeant and his only surviving subordinate to face being buried alive beneath an incomprehensible morass of rubble and severed electrical wires, accompanied only by flash fires unleashed in the attack’s aftermath.
Stone’s work can be florid, (Natural Born Killers) or pompous, (Alexander) but it’s never understated; yet here he works with refreshing restraint, respecting the quiet, determined blue-collar heroism displayed time and again by these trapped cops and the legion of firemen, volunteers and fellow policemen ultimately involved in their rescue. As he demonstrated in his Vietnam trilogy, (Platoon, 4th of July, Heaven and Earth) Stone admires the often unheralded accomplishments of those Americans who wear their nation’s military and civil service uniforms with unassuming pride and exemplify dedication to duty; his salute to them in this film feels both genuine and heartfelt.
Cage’s performances frequently convey an arch self-awareness, as though the actor finds it necessary to signal precisely how the audience should interpret his characters, but he delivers a performance here of understated dignity that convincingly speaks for itself. Cage’s McLaughlin is all the more compelling because the vast majority of the actor’s time on screen consists of close-ups as he lies pinned beneath slabs of concrete and horridly misshapen steel girders. Relying on subtle changes of expression and the weariest of voices, Cage provides a credibly taciturn hero, bewildered about what’s happened and stricken with remorse over his fallen comrades. Pena’s Jimeno is less sharply defined, but that’s due in large part to a script that offers him lines too often intended to place Cage’s character in the more prominent position. Apparently even heroes need to be arranged in hierarchical order…
Unfortunately, the script fails to rise above cliché in portraying the working class wives of these men; although Maria Bello, (A History of Violence) and Maggie Gyllenhall, (Secretary) have consistently demonstrated the ability to create memorable characters, neither is called upon here for much more than one-dimensional, tearful hand-wringing. Even worse, the Bello/Cage relationship, as imagined in a series of flashbacks, borders on the maudlin. And the storyline switches back and forth much too often from the trapped men to their families, not because the Stone and his cast aren’t capable of sustaining longer scenes, but rather because Berloff’s lines don’t provide her talented actors sufficient opportunity for injecting more nuance and complexity into their roles. Some may argue that 9/11 is far too complex to be adequately conveyed by examining a single incident involving only a tiny portion of those caught up in it’s massive horror, but that’s not Stone’s point of view; he insists on presenting the enormity of that day by focusing precisely on these two men and their families. In doing so, WTC would have greatly benefited by depicting them in a more fully developed fashion.
On the other hand, the movie brilliantly conveys the dimensions of 9/11’s chaos by focusing on its details: as they’re bused into the maelstrom, frightened cops stare out in disbelief at the day’s first casualties; flying debris randomly pings on firemen and police as they race into harm’s way and the search for necessary life-saving equipment goes on even as the futility of its use becomes ever more apparent. Everything above ground gets coated with the gray ash of cremation, rescue workers stumble blindly through streets that no longer function and the desk sergeant at the police department’s communication center struggles, in a voice laced with patient dignity, to provide what little information she can to her fellow officers and their distraught families. Although Stone makes limited use of actual footage of the collapse, his set designers augment those images with reconstructed wreckage so vivid it’s often painful to watch. Even the sound track conveys, in ominous screeches and groans, some of the utter terror those involved must have experienced during the day’s unfolding calamity. The script’s deliberately repetitive use of the word “brother” reflects the solidarity which emerged in the immediate aftermath of the collapse, so evident even to those who only participated in it through television coverage. On the morning of September 12th, New York City’s skyscrapers, (majestically displayed during the movie’s opening credits) seem to create empty canyons where blizzards of charred copy paper wallow in dust-choked air. For the viewer, the finest moments of WTC occur in this nearly obsessive attention to minutiae, triggering chocked-up reactions and the risk of watered eyes. Does the emotional impact come from the movie itself, or something in the psyche of those watching? Wherever this source of its power lies, WTC triggers a deep response.
The director preaches only once, in the person of Dave Karnes, a lantern-jawed former Marine whose volunteer efforts in the hours immediately following the buildings’ collapse were largely responsible for locating the surviving policemen. Karnes is played by Michael Shannon, a gifted character actor with dozens of sharply-etched supporting roles to his credit; it’s his job to personify what Stone evidently feels the audience requires in the way of vigorous commitment to vengeance. Closing footnotes disclose that Kearns in fact re-enlisted in the Marines and served two tours in Iraq, a sadly ironic commentary on his dour lines in the film which speak of punishing those responsible. Is Stone satirizing the Bush administration’s subsequent focus on Saddam Hussein rather than Osama and Al Qaeda?
Either way, it doesn’t matter; without making a brilliant film, Stone has created an undeniably compelling one, earning him a welcome return to front-rank directorial status.
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