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Thursday, August 10, 2006

World Trade Center

Last Wednesday I was among the first at the Essex Cinemas to see Oliver Stone’s new film, World Trade Center. I’ve always been a bit wary of Stone’s movies, not because of his politics, but because they tend to go on and on, and this one was scheduled to clock in at 135 minutes. That meant either the movie could be extremely wide-ranging (like his 1994 film Natural Born Killers) or overwhelmingly tedious (like 2004’s Alexander).

I arrived at the theater a bit early, hoping to connect with some of the regulars before the show just to talk about the movie we were going to see. That’s not something I usually do, but I guess I was feeling a tad squeamish about World Trade Center. Whether I realized it or not, the events of 9/11 still haunt me in small ways I don’t even notice on a day-to-day basis, and the idea of reliving that day as a form of “entertainment”
had apparently stirred up this anxiety more than I knew.

Maybe it is because I remember spending time in the "real" World Trade Center myself back in the ‘80s and the idea that
it had been basically evaporated in a little more than a hour is still hard to reconcile with my past experiences there. When I lived in The City there was no better view than from the 107th floor Windows On The World restaurant, no more predictable experience (for me anyway) than for my ears to pop exactly as we passed the 79th floor on our way up and down in the elevators, and no better kept secret than the half-price theater ticket booth surreptitiously tucked away in a corner of the Mezzanine level, the perfect place to get great Broadway tix without waiting in those god-awful lines in the middle of Times Square. It’s funny how those little things that don’t really mean much are the ones that hang onto your heart, and now these have been trumped by other bits and pieces. I no longer ignore low-flying planes overhead, and when I am traveling I can’t help but scope out the others who are milling about the waiting area before my flight. Yes, call it “profiling”, though I’m not sure it is so much based on racial or ethnic characteristics as much as simply my own paranoid thoughts about who looks like they might be potential terrorists. For instance, Marcellas Parsons would pass muster, but Tom Messner would never make it. Marcellas equals a kindly if somewhat stern patriarch while Messner equals a mouth full of plastic explosives disguised as teeth. I’m sorry, but it’s true.

Does that sound unkind? I don’t mean for it to. I think it is just that I’ve suddenly realized something. For the past five years, every time I see a movie or a tv show with a shot of the Manhattan skyline (and don’t they all), I find myself feeling that empty sadness that you try to brush back when you remember a friend who has died suddenly or violently. You don’t want to be reminded, but it is simply impossible not to think about the fact that something very, very important is now missing from the picture, and its’ absence can never be replaced. Perhaps the greatest “special effect” you’ll find in this movie is just the opportunity to glimpse that beautiful sunny Autumn morning in September when the world still had a last glimmer of innocence and people went about their business that morning under those twin guardians with no idea of what was about to happen.

From there, Oliver Stone’s done a remarkable job in recreating the tensions and trauma of what happened that day at the World Trade Center, but he has focused less on the towers themselves than on the human drama that challenged two families on that day in the real life story about two of the last survivors plucked from the ruins of the devastation after the towers’ collapse.

Nicolas Cage (Lord of War) plays John McLoughlin, a Port Authority Police Sergeant from New Jersey who gets up every morning at 3:30 am to make the trip into The City to work as a beat cop at Grand Central. His 21-year marriage to Donna (Maria Bello; A History of Violence) is secure if somewhat routine and their life together revolves around their four children, three boys and a little girl. On this Tuesday morning, John has no more reason to believe that this day is going to be any more eventful than the thousand days before it. Michael Peña (Million Dollar Baby) plays Will Jimeno, one of McLoughlin’s officers, father of a four year old girl and expectant father of another with his wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaall; Happy Endings). Together, the men’s lives converge when they are
summoned to the scene along with every other available police officer and fire firefighter and then volunteer to go into the South Tower to help evacuate people. Before they can make it to their target, however, they are instead buried under piles of rubble in the North Tower when the South Tower unexpectedly collapses next door.

As Will and John, along with the four others in their unit attempt to dig themselves out of the mess they find themselves in, the second tower falls and this time the impact kills all but John, Will, and a
third officer, Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez; Hostel). The three are gravely injured and none of them can move more than a few inches. In short order, Dom dies, leaving only McLoughlin and Jimeno, separated by 20 feet of cement and metal, to try to keep one another alive through conversation and shared hope.

From here the film itself gathers most of its’ energy by moving up to the surface where the reactions to their husbands’ missing status affects both wives differently and we see how families a
nd friends can and do respond in a variety of scenarios, none of which help ease the unbearable
agony of not knowing their loved ones’ fates while fearing the worst.

If I was to have any complaint with the film at all it would be just that we as the audience haven’t been given enough of an opportunity to get to know Donna, Allison, and especially Donna and John’s sons,
so some of their emotional scenes aren’t as powerful without us having a personal
investment in feeling like we care about them as much as Stone obviously does. That is particularly true in the case of the McLaughlin’s teen sons, Steven (Conor Paulo; Alexander) and JJ (Anthony Piccininni, making his acting debut) who have a few awkward and almost shocking exchanges with their mother that would be much more compelling if they were explained or elaborated upon to flesh out their relationship with their parents as well as reveal more about the characters of Donna and John as seen through their children’s eyes.

As an aside, the score, by Craig Armstrong, is beautiful and breathes its’ own life as a character throughout the movie. Unlike John Williams’ often overwhelming and overbearing scores (literally) trumpeting the plot points like a hammer to the head, Armstrong’s music is steady and melodic, almost reverential, as it builds to an angelic sense of resurrection upon the eventual rescue and reunion of the two policemen and their wives.

Surprisingly, this is Stone’s least political film, whereas with his
reputation as a conspiracy theorist, one might expect a plethora of theories about what “really” caused the towers to fall. Who was “really” behind it? And was our government “hiding something”? Fortunately, Stone has shown great restraint and left his JFK-mode out of the picture this time and instead made an almost reverential human drama about courage and love, even in the face of the worst possible obstacles. This is, by far, the best movie Stone has made in years. Sadly, it is also the hardest one to watch.

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