Media

Oliver Stone Rewrites 9/11

In his new film, 'World Trade Center,' the director turns the events of 9/11 into an easily digestible myth of American heroism, with an almost happy ending. Huh?
"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."

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Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and Utne Magazine.