Friday, October 23, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: World Trade Center (2006)

World Trade Center (2006)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Andrea Berloff based on the true story of John McLoughlin & Donna McLoughlin and William Jimeno & Allison Jimeno.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (John McLoughlin), Michael Peña (Will Jimeno), Maria Bello (Donna McLoughlin), Maggie Gyllenhaal (Allison Jimeno), Michael Shannon (Dave Karnes), Armando Riesco (Antonio Rodrigues), Jay Hernandez (Dominick Pezzulo), William Mapother (Marine Sergeant Thomas), Stephen Dorff (Scott Strauss), Frank Whaley (Chuck Sereika).

World Trade Center is not the film about 9/11 that you would expect a firebrand like Oliver Stone to make. During the course of his career, he has made numerous controversial films about sacred American institutions, and has called out American foreign policy at every turn. But there is no talk about America in the bigger picture in World Trade Center – not even any mention of Islam or terrorists, or George W. Bush or anything else. The film is pretty much a straight ahead tribute to the heroism of the NYPD and NYFD on 9/11 itself, and in its aftermath. It is extremely well made and acted, but perhaps overly sentimental. The film debuted just a few months after Paul Greengrass’s United 93, and were the first two American studio movies about that day, so it makes sense that the film is so respectful of the events. You would expect this film from a director like Ron Howard, not Oliver Stone. Only the portrait of Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon – in the role that first brought him to my attention) even hints at anything darker in the American psyche – which is what Stone’s film are usually about. Why did Stone make this film? Perhaps, because despite all his criticism of America over the years, he still loves it – there is still a part of him that is that naïve college kid who volunteered for the Vietnam War.

The movie tells the true stories of John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) – two Port Authority police officers, who on 9/11 were dispatched the WTC. As part of a four man group, they were assigned to help evacuate one of the towers that morning, but end up trapped under a lot of rumble when the buildings came crashing down – the only thing that saved them, is that they were able to make it the elevator shaft before it actually did collapse. The pair of them spend days down there, before miraculously they were discovered and rescued. As the movie tells us, only 20 people were pulled out of the rumble alive after the towers collapses – McLoughlin and Jimeno were numbers 18 and 19.

The early scenes of the movie are truly terrifying, as Stone captures the utter chaos of that morning – when no one really had any idea what was going on. All these cops knew is that a plane had hit one of the towers – before they were loaded onto a bus and shipped down to help out. On the way, they here they other tower has been hit – but they’re not sure if they can believe that. When they arrive, they find utter chaos – people covered in blood, others already leaping from the buildings to try and survive. McLoughlin, as the senior officer, tries to get everyone to focus on the task they have been assigned – block out the rest, and try to help people. It is a truly frightening sequence.

After the towers collapse, the movie cuts between different kinds of scenes – scenes where McLoughlin and Jimeno are trapped under the rumble, trying to stay sane, trying to stay awake, and trying to help each other stay alive as much as they possibly can, when they are both trapped far away from each other. Then there are flashbacks to happier times – the pair with their wives and kids, and other scenes of those same wives and kids and family members on the verge of losing it, as they have no idea what has happened to their husbands and fathers. Finally, there are scenes of the rescuers – most notably Michael Shannon’s Dave Karnes, a former marine, and now an accountant working in Connecticut, who feels his place is in New York to help – and he somehow gets there, and helps to locate the two men, still alive, and get them help.

Stone has never been a sentimental filmmaker. For the most part, Stone is far more cynical in his depiction of family life and relationships, which in most of his movies are painted in a negative light (which leads to Stone’s “woman problem”, particularly in his earlier films, where the female characters seem to exist only to be used by the male characters). The relationships in World Trade Center then are probably the healthiest he has ever portrayed – with both men clinging to the memories of their families to try and stay alive (Jimeno also has a vision of Jesus – which is one of the only positive portrayals of religion in a Stone movie as well). In short, the movie doesn’t feel like an Oliver Stone movie – although that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

The one element that did remind me of Stone is the Dave Karnes character, played with scary intensity by Michael Shannon. Some hated his performance – saw it as one note, but that’s not the case for me. Shannon has the unique ability to play a character like this, and not mock his characters for their beliefs, nor glamorize them. His Dave Karnes is a man driven by God and sense of patriotism to do what he does – and he ends up a hero. But it’s also a more than slightly insane plan he has – and they fact he ended up re-enlisting and serving two tours of duty in Iraq because of this day makes him a somewhat sadder character. Shannon is a terrific actor – and he has done better work since then – but his is the best, most interesting character in the movie.

In part that is because the rest of the characters are one dimensionally good and decent people. You cannot fault Stone, nor screenwriter Andrea Berloff, for doing that – this really isn’t the type of movie that is built on complex characters. The movie is a reminder of what happened that day, what those who were there went through. This isn’t a movie about the causes of September 11, nor what happened afterwards – but a positive portrait of humanity in the wake of a devastating event. No, you do not expect Oliver Stone to make that movie – but he did with World Trade Center. And he did it well.

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