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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "World Trade Center" (2006)

It has been one week since I’ve seen "World Trade Center" and I’m now no closer to narrowing my opinion down to a simple star rating than I was when I walked out of the theater. Like Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” earlier this year, Oliver Stone’s movie leaves the viewer questioning the validity of the emotional power of the film. Was I moved because it’s a well-made film or because the events of 9/11 are inherently moving? I feel like I’m repeating myself from last April, but Stone’s movie remains all the more puzzling because it actually lets us get to know a few of the people involved, whereas “United 93” let the collective courage of the passengers speak for itself. Oddly enough, “United 93” remains a far more powerful and devastating experience, but is that because it came first?

I don’t think that’s an unreasonable question, really. Having missed the made-for-TV movie “Flight 93,” “United 93” was my first experience with a fictionalized account of the events of 9/11, so it might stand to reason that Greengrass’s movie left me feeling annihilated because I had to brace myself for an experience for which I wasn’t sure I felt ready. Now that I’ve been there and done that, a fictionalized account of the World Trade Center attacks doesn’t seem so jarring or in questionable taste. It simply feels like the next logical step.

And yet I walked in with a cynical attitude. “United 93” seemed like the perfect, tasteful way to make a movie about 9/11. They got a director who knew his way around this sort of material (see “Bloody Sunday) and a no-name cast. They released it in April, a time of year when studios do little campaigning for Oscars or dollars. It felt like a wholly sincere tribute to those who died. Now, along comes “World Trade Center.” Big director, big star (Nicolas Cage), big studio push and big summer release. Back in January, I remember a guy calling into a radio show (where I was a guest) and saying “This year, Hollywood is out for blood money,” and by the look of things, he may have been right.

Of course, I don’t agree with that sentiment. “World Trade Center” doesn’t feel like it’s out for blood money. It feels like the sort of movie you would expect to come out of Hollywood. It exists to pay tribute to the police, firefighters and military who went into the towers to try and help those who were trapped. It exists to recount the events of the day and to relive the raw emotions of the public consciousness as the events slowly unfolded. It exists to move us to tears and to remind us of what we discovered in ourselves as we saw first hand our nation under attack.

Yet much of the movie feels somewhat arbitrary and superficial. I looked up on the screen and didn’t see police officer John McLaughlin. I saw Nicolas Cage trying to pull off an everyman exterior and a New York accent. I didn’t walk out of the movie grateful for the experience and the reminder of what 9/11 brought out in people. I walked out feeling as though someone repeated over and over again what I’ve already known since the day it happened. I didn’t feel as though I was re-living the confusion and chaos of that day. I felt like I was watching a movie.

On the other hand, this movie has genuine moments of sadness, suspense and terror. It starts out with McLaughlin telling his fellow officers to watch their backs and be safe. They each go out, go through the usual motions of a morning in the life of a police officer (shooing away prostitutes and panhandlers), when suddenly a plane crashes into Tower 1. Officer McLaughlin and his team, of course, have no way of knowing how to handle a situation such as this. McLaughlin asks that a few men come with him to the Tower to help out with the rescue effort. Most are reluctant, but Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), Antonio Rodrigues (Armando Riesco) and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) take the job. Soon, we’re in Tower 1 with them, knowing before they do that it will soon fall.

These moments in the film are truly scary. As Stone has said, we never see the towers fall, just as we never see the planes fly into the buildings. We’ve all seen the images of the World Trade Center collapsing and we’ve all wondered just how in the hell anyone could survive it. But McLaughlin, Jimeno and Rodrigues (for a while anyway) did and they spend most of the rest of the movie trapped in one space with only their voices, will, spirituality and encouragement as a means of survival. Occasionally, the earth shakes around them, but they remain unaware of the separate but equal devastation that is happening next door. All they can do is lay in one place and scream.

Meanwhile, their wives and families watch helplessly as cable news stations repeat the footage over and over again. McLaughlin’s wife Donna (Maria Bello) and four kids contemplate going to Ground Zero to try and find him. Jimeno’s pregnant wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) tries to get around the torturous waiting for a phone call from someone to give her the whereabouts of her husband, but to no avail. She goes to the store to get some necessities, only to be pulled back helplessly to the phone just to wait some more. We also get flashbacks to happier times between these two men and their wives.

“World Trade Center” tries very hard (maybe a little too hard) to cover a lot of ground. Not only do we see the story of McLaughlin and Jimeno and their families, but we also see the story of Sgt. David Karnes (Michael Shannon), a former Marine and accountant who felt compelled to shave his head, put back on his uniform and help out in the rescue efforts. He becomes a key figure in this story, but it’s the scenes between McLaughlin and Jimeno that remain most compelling of all. One of the movie’s biggest surprises has to do with a spiritual vision that ends up being played more for a gleeful laugh than as a heavy handed sentiment.

So, the movie has scares, surprises, a moment or two of genuine humor and a few moments that truly moved me. So, what’s the problem? The problem could very well be me. Watching the movie and having thoughts such as “Whoa, who wrote that line?” and “Laying it on a bit thick there, Stone,” I’d catch myself and think…But what if that’s how it really happened? What if that person actually said that on that particular day? Wouldn’t it be right to honor that and remain faithful to the true story regardless of how it might be perceived through my critical, cynical eyes and ears? I’m certainly not suggesting the movie should be deemed critic-proof. I just stop and wonder at what point I’m criticizing real people, real events and real lives, and how fair is that? On the other hand, I can’t help but wince when the cop from Wisconsin has his Midwestern roots emphasized by the bratwurst in his hand.

So, yes, Stone has made the safest movie of his career and it goes through the motions of everything you would expect from Hollywood in a movie about 9/11. But what else exactly is there to say about this particular story? Do I really want to hear a conspiracy-laced, anti-America diatribe? Is Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” really the answer to our problems? Hasn’t Spike Lee already made the ultimate post-9/11 statement with his brilliant, underrated “25th Hour”? Haven’t people noticed that Steven Spielberg has made an entire trilogy out of the subject (“The Terminal,” “War of the Worlds” and “Munich”)? Is there no room for simple, heartfelt sentiment anymore?

These questions nagged at me endlessly after the movie ended. It’s a movie like this that makes a star rating seem useless. I probably owe it another viewing. I’m not being wishy-washy here. I’m being honest. I’m thinking there will be others who walk into the theater with the same reservations and perceptions as I had. I sat there watching it and waiting to sink my teeth into something without realizing that Stone—by simply trying to capture the unbridled emotions of the day without the slightest hint of cynicism—may have actually made a much more brave film than I was giving him credit for. “World Trade Center” may not be a great movie about 9/11, but at least it’s an honest, sincere attempt from a filmmaker who, for better or worse, has always been honest with his audience.

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