Oliver's Twist

Salt Lake City Weekly | August 4, 2006
On the list of phrases you never expect to see in popular culture—“self-effacing Madonna performance,” “filler-free American Idol episode”—I would have felt safe including “restrained Oliver Stone film.” That was before World Trade Center.

For 20 years, Stone built a career out of pumping his films with so many visual steroids that they begin breaking out in back-acne. Willem Dafoe’s death scene in Platoon was operatic slow-mo Christ imagery before The Passion of the Christ was a twinkle in Mel Gibson’s bloodshot eye; JFK began a multi-film streak in which a scene wasn’t a scene unless it involved 160 different edits and 12 different kinds of film stock. You couldn’t just watch his movies, because they reached out of the film to shake you and insist that you recognize that they are important, dammit, and that they are art.

It’s understandable, then, that Stone’s storytelling predilections—along with his notorious political leanings—would send the right-wing blogosphere into a carpal-tunnel swelling frenzy at the announcement that he was working on a film titled World Trade Center. Not only was it too soon, went the conventional wisdom, but Ollie would certainly turn the tale into an amped-up screed. But maybe thanks to newfound humility after the failure of Alexander led to a DVD cut that was actually shorter than the theatrical version, Stone was ready to make a movie in which more was not necessarily better.

Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff take their story from the lives of two New York Port Authority cops who find themselves in the middle of the chaos of Sept. 11, 2001. Responding to the fire at the World Trade Center, Patrol Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) brings his crew—including relative newcomer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña)—to the site. They don’t even have a chance to begin their rescue operation when the first tower collapse buries them in the rubble of Building 5. And as news of the disaster spreads, family members—including John’s wife Donna (Maria Bello) and Will’s wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal)—wait for information while fearing the worst.

For a little while, it appears that Stone is going to fall into some of his less attractive filmmaking habits. While his early scenes present effectively mundane snippets of everyday early morning life in New York, he keeps casting ominous glances at the towers in the Manhattan skyline. He even superimposes the caption “September 11, 2001” over one such shot. I’m sure the 4-year-olds in the audience appreciated being informed of the date on which the events took place.

Yet he quickly redeems himself as he captures the chaos at Ground Zero. The Port Authority cops begin their operations not even certain yet that both towers had been hit; firefighters abruptly shift assignments that will take them to their deaths. And in the potentially trickiest point for any film about 9/11, Stone shoots the collapse of the South Tower without exploitation, entirely from the perspective of McLoughlin and his team—just a horrifying rumble and a blast of debris at ground level.

Stone may have been kept in check most, however, by the specifics of the story he’s relating. Because McLoughlin and Jimeno are trapped for hours beneath concrete and metal, there’s not much opportunity for hyperactive camera work. Stone simply cuts back and forth between the two men talking to one another in a desperate attempt to keep one another—and themselves—awake and alive. Though the narrative launches quickly without providing the protagonists a lot of back-story, their personalities emerge through simple, spare conversations. It’s raw, immediate stuff, and Stone does nothing to screw it up.

Things get a little trickier and less focused when World Trade Center deals with the world above the two trapped cops. At times, the emphasis seems to be on the people—a recovering addict ex-paramedic (Frank Whaley); a grim-faced, purposeful Marine (Michael Shannon)—who risked their lives to become part of the rescue effort. Yet there’s also the drama of anxious spouses and families, with flashbacks that suggest a message of appreciating life’s small moments. World Trade Center lacks the laser-focus that made United 93 so gripping earlier this year, but it’s still more potent and grounded than you might expect from Oliver Stone. It’s imperfect, but mature and confident—a movie made by a guy who actually believes he can get through to his audience without yelling at it.


*** (three stars)

Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Directed by Oliver Stone

Rated PG-13.

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