"Don't think; keep moving."
Spoken by Port Authority police Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) as the World Trade Center buckles above him, these words ring truer than most in Paramount Pictures' new film "World Trade Center," directed by Oliver Stone.
Not only does this line of dialogue aptly describe the movie -- which opens today -- but it also illustrates a worldview embraced by the film. No wonder Paramount launched a massive marketing campaign that targets two specific groups often light on thought and heavy on action: teenage boys and the Christian Right.
A celebration of authority, God, and president Bush, "World Trade Center" doesn't feel like an Oliver Stone movie. If conservatives were worried that Stone, the director of anti-establishment touchstones "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July," and "JFK," would turn this 9/11 movie into a platform for personal politics, he has proved them resoundingly wrong. Instead, Stone delivers the Bush base a jingoistic, All-American all-you-can-eat buffet on a silver platter.
"World Trade Center" opens with the soon-to-be heroes of a Port Authority police precinct heading into work from points across New Jersey and New York. It's an ethnic cross-section of New Yorkers, including sergeant McLoughlin (Cage), Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), Antonio Rodriguez (Armendo Riesco) and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez).
But when Jimeno starts mouthing the words to Brooks and Dunn's country and western song "Only in America" -- heard on the radio, and, of course, the soundtrack -- the film betrays its true setting. This isn't New York (come on, how many Latino cops sing along with lily-white patriotic ballads?). This is an imaginary Big Apple -- complete with happy-go-lucky black transsexual prostitutes and amiable hippie homeless guys -- made for those who've never visited the city and want to claim it as their own 9/11 memory.
The film predictably sets up the characters alongside the first rumblings of the catastrophe and the confusion on the ground: Were there two planes, or just one? A small aircraft, or a larger jet? Possibly to avoid depicting the impact for the umpteenth time, Stone never shows the planes hitting the towers; we only see a brief glimpse of a jet's shadow crossing a building. (This image also includes a billboard from Paramount's 2001 Ben Stiller comedy "Zoolander." Is this historical accuracy or product placement?)
No matter. When McLoughlin and his team eventually enter the World Trade Center concourse as the buildings collapse, the film takes its most harrowing turn. Fade to black: Buried beneath mounds of gnarled metal, concrete slabs, and twisted pipes, the Port Authority officers are either trapped, dead, or dying. These horrible moments are also the film's most effective and visceral; the men endure excruciating pain; the surroundings are oppressive, claustrophobic and thrilling. But just in case the audience gets too uncomfortable, Stone cuts away to their wholesome American families waiting tearfully for word of their husbands, fathers and sons. As grieving wives and mothers, actors Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal do an admirable job of suffering in slow motion. Some in the audience will have trouble fighting back the soapy movie-of-the-week tears.
Stone also introduces the film's most polemical character: Dave Karnes, the ex-marine who eventually discovered the two survivors amid the rubble. We first see Karnes glued to a television screen, watching a worshipful insert of President Bush ("the resolve for our great nation is being tested, but make no mistake," he says, "we will show the world we will pass the test"). Driven by religious calling and military adventurism, Karnes leaves his office, goes to church, dons his marine gear and heads to the World Trade Center, where he subsequently sneaks past the barricades and eventually finds the remaining men.
Judging from news accounts, Karnes is, in fact, a devout Christian and faithful Marine (who subsequently served two tours of duty in Iraq). But the film glorifies the man in obsequious ways, associating Karnes with beams of celestial light and even, in an officer's delirious hallucinations, with Jesus Christ. At one point, Karnes offers his own Marine Corps recruitment ad: "We are Marines. We're not leaving you. You are our mission."
But the depiction of Karnes is not wholly clear-cut (how could Oliver Stone, the man who has consistently criticized the barbarism of war in previous films, portray this character without question?). Played by creepy character-actor Michael Shannon, Karnes may be a super G.I. Joe, but he's also a little crazy. One observant firefighter says as much. Stone's slightly distorted wide-angle shots of Karnes (Shannon) reinforce this reading. Still, this implicit critique -- which few people will notice -- does little to negate the film's larger problems.
And that is the problem itself. If April's "United 93" had some semblance of restraint and complexity, a few moments questioning our bloodthirsty need for revenge, "World Trade Center" is all pristine suburban lawns and melodramatic reunions. Here is the most important distinction between Hollywood's two 9/11 movies: Everyone knows "United 93" ends in tragedy, whereas the story in "World Trade Center" concludes with an American-flag-waving happy ending. If only life -- and the events of that day -- were so simple.
To Hollywood-ify a historical event is to reduce it, and wrap a supposedly true story into an entertaining, easily digestible package. Oliver Stone knows well the power of film to put forth, and put in stone, a particular version of an incident in time. He did it with his conspiratorial vision of the Kennedy assassination in "JFK."
It's much the same with "World Trade Center." Stone crystallizes the complicated events of 9/11 into an old-fashioned smorgasbord of American heroism, gut feeling and endurance, with a little divine intervention thrown in for good measure. Or, as Nicholas Cage's character aptly put it: "Don't think; keep moving."
After three inmates at the United States' Guantanamo Bay detention center killed themselves two weeks ago, camp commander Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. told reporters that the suicides were "not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."
But the three men -- Mani bin Shaman bin Turki al-Habardi, 30, Yasser Talal Abdulah Yahya al-Zahrani, 22, and Ali Abdullah Ahmed, 33 -- were never charged with a crime, and no evidence has been offered to prove that they were the "smart," "creative" and "committed" warriors that U.S. officials would lead us to believe.
"The Road to Guantanamo," an engrossing new movie (opening Friday) from British filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, shows just how easy it is for innocent young people to be swept up in the United States' indiscriminate "war on terror" and suffer the kinds of indignities that could lead someone to take his own life.
The subjects of "Road to Guantamo," real-life British-Pakistani citizens Shafiq Rasul, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed, were eventually released from the camp and returned to Britain. But the "Tipton Three" (so dubbed for their hometown near Birmingham) were first held captive, interrogated and tortured at Guantanamo, and to this day have received neither reason nor apology for their 29-month imprisonment.
Knowing the facts of their story does little to diminish the power of seeing it unfold on screen. An effective hybrid of documentary and dramatic styles, "The Road to Guantanamo" employs interviews from the real-life Tipton Three, who narrate their own journey as it is recreated onscreen by first-time actors (a credible cast of Londoners led by Riz Agmed, Farhad Harun and Arfan Usman).
A couple years back, director Winterbottom crafted a similarly stunning docudrama called "In This World," a woefully under-seen immigration tale that followed two real-life Afghan refugees on a harrowing journey from Peshawar to Britain. (One of the "actors" in the film actually snuck into the United Kingdom on his own after production finished.)
Like that movie, "Road to Guantanamo" is subtle, realist filmmaking, never beating viewers over the head in the Michael Moore mode, notwithstanding some brief damning clips of George W. Bush ("These are bad people," he offers in his typically simple-minded fashion) and Donald Rumsfeld ("There is no doubt in my mind that the treatment is humane and appropriate and consistent with the Geneva Convention, for the most part," italics added).
"Road to Guantanamo" presents the events that led to the young men's seizure and incarceration in a straightforward, factual manner. No embellishment is needed; their actual journey was just as tense and shocking as Hollywood fiction. In fact, Shafiq, Asif and Rhuhel (and another friend Monir, lost along the way) are shown as normal, rambunctious twentysomethings right out of a teen comedy. Call it "Harold and Kumar Go to Afghanistan."
After traveling to Pakistan for the wedding of one of the young men, they answer a humanitarian call to help out the Afghani people, and set off to the neighboring country in search of adventure and oversized naan. But once in Afghanistan, U.S. bombs begin dropping and the gang tries to escape, only to end up on a bus going the wrong direction and smack dab in the middle of all-out war.
Talk about a bad spring break. Like Winterbottom's similarly improvised and inspired (but far less serious) films "24 Hour Party People" and "Tristram Shandy," it would be almost funny -- if what happened to the Tipton blokes wasn't so horrible.
At first, they think the Americans will save them. But quickly, after being badgered, beaten, shipped to Cuba and fitted with jumpsuits and blacked-out goggles, they realize quite the opposite is true.
What's potentially frustrating about experiencing "The Road to Guantanamo" -- and it is an experience: thrilling, maddening and tragic -- is how little the boys assert their innocence. If someone imprisoned you, wouldn't you try to explain your situation, call your mother or an official back home, find someone to back up your story?
But at one point, after being interrogated for the umpteenth time and accused of Al-Qaida ties, one of the men reveals the terrible double bind of Gitmo. "I can't prove it to you, and you won't believe me," he explains, "so I'm not going to say anything."
A combination of Kafkaesque absurdity and Stalinist brutality, the camp scenes reveal the sheer hopelessness of Guantanamo detention. "You're Al Qaida," repeat officials over and over again, as if the incessant reiteration of the accusation makes it true. U.S. forces are unrelenting, doing all they can to force a confession, be it true or false. You begin to wonder how anyone could handle the stress, let alone maintain their sanity through the lies, coercion, threats and torture.
And torture, it is. "Road to Guantanamo" depicts incidents where the young men are chained, standing in stress positions, in isolation cells and subjected to heavy metal music and strobe lights for hours on end. Whatever Bush, Rumsfeld or government lawyers say about the United States' policy on torture, these scenes give us a sense of the brutal reality. The fact that it isn't actual reality -- but a reenactment of it -- may actually help viewers digest the horror of torture. It's a strategic paradox often used by Winterbottom; in dramatization, he arrives at a truth that audiences may be too inured to confront in a documentary.
Never sensational, "Road to Guantanamo" isn't agit-prop, but it does strike a powerful blow at the heart of the Bush administration's callous wartime policies, revealing the suffering it has inflicted on innocent people.
As Asif Iqbal says, reflecting back on his experiences at the end of the "Road to Guantanamo," "The world is not a nice place."
The pharmaceutical industry is about to get another pain in the neck. If the recent mega-million-dollar verdict against Merck and its Vioxx painkiller didn't do enough to further taint the reputation of Big Pharma, The Constant Gardener, a new morally conscious thriller for the left, should only confirm the public's distrust.
Based on John Le Carre's 2001 novel, the film is a slick exposÃƒÂ© of callous pharmaceutical giants and corrupt governments. But for all its laudable intentions, The Constant Gardener is the latest picture from "liberal Hollywood" (see also The Interpreter) to advance its agenda from a first-world, white perspective -- a point of view that ultimately clouds its potential power.
The erudite U.K. actor Ralph Fiennes stars as Justin Quayle, the constant gardener of the title, a mid-level, mild-mannered member of the British High Commission stationed in Kenya. As he tends to his gardenias, the evils of globalization are committed right under his nose. It's not until his headstrong, young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is murdered in the bush that the dull diplomat arises from his greenhouse and stumbles upon a conspiracy of international scope.
Unbeknownst to Quayle, feisty wife Tessa was uncovering the dubious practices of a Swiss-based pharmaceutical firm and their testing of a new experimental tuberculosis drug, "Dypraxa," on unsuspecting Africans. "They're disposable drugs for disposable people," explains a doctor later in the film.
Such damning statements should satisfy viewers angry about Merck's recent egregious scam. And the same goes for our flashback introduction to the "privileged revolutionary" Tessa when she first spots Quayle at a lecture: She decries the failure of diplomacy in Iraq and dubs the undertaking "Vietnam, the sequel." But when Weisz's Tessa awkwardly backs down, apologizes for her outburst and inexplicably invites Quayle home for giggly sex, the radical heroine loses her edge -- as does the film.
As Quayle takes up his late wife's humanitarian mission, the film's conspiracy plot kicks into high gear -- referencing Robert Ludlam's "The Bourne Identity" rather than the modest, nuanced John Le Carre of "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" and "Smiley's People." The film's political intrigue also dovetails with Quayle's more personal quest to understand the love of his life. As both stories intermingle, The Constant Gardener reveals its underlying nature: It's just one more movie about white romance in black Africa.
Perhaps it's a good thing that handsome sophisticate Fiennes is associated with another such tale, 1996's similarly positioned Oscar contender The English Patient. While The Constant Gardener is not as syrupy as that doomed romance, the actor's high-cheek-boned presence makes glaringly evident the preponderance of films that follow European elites against a backdrop of African strife. As a side note, the greatest achievement of Hotel Rwanda may be simply the fact that its protagonist is a black African.
However, Fiennes, playing the reserved bureaucrat, delivers as solid a performance as Don Cheadle gave in Rwanda: both appear initially as figures of denial. (In Rwanda, the hotel manager happily caters to shady generals; in Gardener, Quayle insists, "We can't involve ourselves in their lives.") In many ways, these protagonists function as surrogates for the uninformed American audience member: journeying from uninformed naivetÃƒÂ© to passionate advocacy. And yet, leaving the multiplex after the evils have been vanquished, moviegoers can feel they have done something good as well, and in turn, feel better about themselves -- and then do nothing at all.
It's a central fault of the white liberal guilt genre, with its palliative effect on the wounded left. A movie like Crash, as well -- a collision of simplifications and stereotypes about race in America -- resolves its many extreme black-and-white conflicts for the audience's benefit instead of confronting their own subtle prejudices. But gather a bunch of well-to-do blue-staters together after seeing the picture, and they'll think they've witnessed the second coming of the civil rights movement. Afraid not.
To his credit, Simon Channing Williams, the British producer of The Constant Gardener and no stranger to the left, having made some of Mike Leigh's most potent U.K. working-class laments (Life is Sweet, Secrets and Lies), asked a director from a developing country to make the movie. Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, hot off his violent Rio-set slum opus City of God, would seem an inspired choice to bring The Constant Gardener to the screen.
Using a handheld camera as he did in City of God, Meirelles snakes through the multi-colored throngs, cackling chickens and dilapidated shantytowns, capturing the electricity and chaos of African life. With its poverty-stricken population and rust-colored roads, rural Kenya recalls the ragged (and sometimes overly prettified) Rio de Janeiro landscapes depicted in Meirelles's celebrated debut.
Also echoing City of God, Meirelles places the camera up-close and eye-level with resourceful Kenyan kids. In one perfect, passing moment, a gang of ragamuffins place large rocks in front of the road to extort cash from the obstructed SUVs of tourists and dignitaries. These scrappy youths could have starred in their own movie -- a Kenyan riff on City of God. Unfortunately, their brief presence only adds local color; the camera must go onto track Quayle as he seeks out Tessa's secrets.
But imagine if the movie abandoned the ill-fated white lovers at the core of The Constant Gardener and focused on these African children -- how they confront their neglect and abuse at the hands of predatory pharmaceutical companies and governments willing to look the other way. It might not have made for the same kind of glossy Oscar bait, but as politically engaged cinema, that would have been the movie to see.
While George W. Bush is being inaugurated in Washington, D.C., this Thursday, the annual Sundance Film Festival will kick off in Park City, Utah. The two events may seem unrelated, but as we saw in 2004, American politics and independent cinema go hand in hand.
Of course, indie powerhouses The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 represent the most partisan products of the contentious last 12 months, but as we enter Bush's second term, the country's extreme rightward turn could ignite the type of movie renaissance not seen since eight years of nuclear proliferation, HIV discrimination and materialist greed helped produce the American independent film movement of the late '80s and early '90s. If the careers of Todd Haynes, Spike Lee and Steven Soderbergh were all launched during the Reagan-Bush regime, imagine what's possible over the next four years.
"You see a lot of strong filmmakers working this year, and I find that an encouraging sign," says Alexander Payne, director of this year's top critics pick, Sideways. "And combined with our worsening political situation and the effect that will have on our culture, I think we may see a change for the better in our cinema."
An ardent fan of the '70s American New Wave, Payne would like to recapture that moment when the film industry embraced more personal, human dramas reflective of American life. "At a time when, as a society, we don't really know who we are or what we're doing, that's a useful time for cinema to be a mirror," he says. "It's like when Tony Curtis catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror in The Boston Strangler and triggers that change from one of his personalities to the other. We need that, too."
Payne is more hopeful than most. "I haven't yet seen cultural repression," he says. "It's not like Germany in the '30s where the big jackboot is coming down on degenerate art." Still, many in the film industry feel deeply disturbed by the censorship-inducing "moral values" mandate and believe a backlash is imminent.
"It's clear to me from the projects I'm looking at that there will be a cultural response to the impending, much more deepened conservatism of the next few years," says Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, a producer on Gregg Araki's upcoming Mysterious Skin.
But what exactly will make up this response? Levy-Hinte says it won't be "necessarily a film that's a direct rant against Bush," but rather "an exploration of estrangement, alienation, personal responsibility, and the questioning of oppressive and authoritarian characters and attitudes."
Todd Solondz's latest, Palindromes, already presents a blunt challenge to conservative mores, both in subject matter (the abortion debate) and in style (multiple actors across age and gender play the same character). But Solondz says he never intended the film (opening this spring) to so acutely capture the blue/red divide. "Certainly the film's subject matter is inherently charged, but it takes an administration like ours to ignite it into something much more troubling," he explains. "I've always felt Bush winning a second term would make for better material for filmmakers to work with. It's all just too rich – like living in a real live Kubrick movie."
But Christine Vachon, the New Queer Cinema pioneer who produced Todd Haynes' Poison and Tom Kalin's Swoon, doesn't see the same urgency today that existed in the early '90s when she and filmmakers like Haynes and Kalin participated in ACT UP and Gran Fury protests while they were making movies. "I hope that there are filmmakers out there who are where I was 15 years ago, and they are trying to tell their stories in a way that is countercultural," she says, "but I don't know who they are and I haven't come across them yet."
"But on the face of it," continues Vachon, more hopefully, "there have been some cool movies recently and people are going to see them." Speaking of Kinsey, for example, Bill Condon's biopic about the infamous sex researcher, Vachon says, "The take on the material was much fresher than I thought it would be."
Vachon's current projects also tackle aesthetically and politically fertile ground: Todd Haynes' I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan ("It's a radical reworking of a traditional biopic," she says); Douglas McGrath's Every Word Is True, a look at Truman Capote's days researching In Cold Blood; and Mary Harron's The Ballad of Bettie Page, about the sex pinup and devout Christian, which has been in the works since the mid '90s.
Vachon can thank financier HBO Films for helping to bring Bettie Page's story to American audiences. Shot largely in the commercially risky format of black-and-white, Bettie Page provides further evidence of HBO's reputation as a haven for experimental and political work. Whether it's Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Mike Nichols' Angels in America, or the Harvey Pekar Sundance hit American Splendor, produced by New York indie stalwart Ted Hope, HBO is trying to make movies that "embrace the complex," says HBO Films president Colin Callender, a Brit who got his start in the '80s during the "height of Thatcherite England," he says, when there "was a whole slew of filmmaking that was informed by that political climate."
While Callender denies any direct parallels with his work at HBO, he holds up Angels in America as a prime example of a contemporary film that explores the way people's lives are "affected, impacted, and impinged by the social, political, economic, and cultural pressures that come to bear on them."
If HBO is willing to take on risky work, will Hollywood follow suit? It may have to. With soaring budgets and diminishing attendance, the studios saw a 6.2 percent drop in box office in 2004, according to Variety. And just as a failing Hollywood system in the '60s produced risquÃ© films for the counterculture like The Graduate and Easy Rider to save their shirts, this year's indie blockbusters kept a sagging Hollywood in the black: Passion and Fahrenheit helped push overall ticket sales up $48 million over the previous year.
Even within Tinseltown, the studios continue to take note of offbeat hits such as Napoleon Dynamite (which made over $44 million at the box office) and pour money into their "art house" divisions to spur the acquisition and production of more idiosyncratic work. While director David O. Russell (I * Huckabees) admits, "I don't think Warner Bros. would make Three Kings today," he says, "my bet is that Warner will funnel everything over to [their specialty arm] Warner Independent. I think there are going to be studio divisions that are happy to make movies for the blue states. That's a lot of people."
Also, ironically, Bush policies may help fuel indie production more directly: A provision in last fall's $136 billion corporate tax-cut bill allows independent producers to write off the costs of films budgeted between $1 million and $15 million, as long as 75 percent of the budget is spent in the United States.
And yet, on the other hand, the consolidation and corporate takeover of artistic production could leave fewer places for truly groundbreaking work to emerge. And under the Bush administration, conglomeration is sure to be exacerbated; as Variety's Peter Bart writes, "Say bye-bye to meaningful media ownership caps."
"You have to think about the situation on the ground, and the situation on the ground is very different than it was before," says producer-screenwriter and Columbia professor James Schamus, who executive-produced 1991's Poison and now co-runs Focus Features, a division of Universal Pictures. According to Schamus, the cultural trends that allowed for the early-'90s American indie revolution – the 1980s' popularization of semiotics and pornography, and a network of B-movie filmmaking – have been replaced by film schools, film festivals, and the Indiewood industry to which he belongs. "And I think that's a taller order," he says. "To get a political film out there through that thicket is difficult."
"The one place you've got a shot," continues Schamus, "is internet culture and open source culture. That's the thing to track." Schamus, like many in the industry, points to Jonathan Caouette's no-budget digital scrapbook Tarnation as evidence of a new type of innovative indie cinema, perhaps a contemporary parallel to the post-structuralist hipness of Haynes' Poison. "You're seeing a lot of work dealing with found images and personal narratives," explains Schamus. "But you're not seeing a lot of that coming out of film school."
Jeffrey Levy-Hinte agrees. "So much of the way people have expressed their dissent about the current politics is via the internet and sending around pieces of media that are very direct, very pointed, and the gloves are completely off, because you're not restrained in any way," he says. "For me, that's really wonderful, and I can see that begin to infiltrate and inform filmmaking as it's conventionally known."
Whether a Bush II cinematic renaissance arises out of technology-based grassroots movements or from within the studio system itself, Callender places the onus on today's culture creators. "What is an independent movie?" he asks. "Is it about the artist as agent provocateur or the artist as apologist for the status quo?"