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Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

The right stuff

Four years ago. That's all it was, but it seems like the distant past now, that post-9/11 period of hypersensitivity where "Spiderman' "s release was delayed so that the Twin Towers could be digitally erased, and the pages of Hollywood's trade papers were filled with predictions that the movie-going public would no longer stomach films about disasters or terrorism.

World Trade Center Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Nicolas Cage (right) in "World Trade Center" TM8 COPYRIGHT (c)2006 BY PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Director: Oliver Stone
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: English
Now showing (Oct. 13, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

"Yeah, right," I remember thinking at the time. "And maybe the moon will fall out of the sky." And, indeed, all the studios ended up doing was allowing a couple of years to pass before our attention-deficient minds were once again ready for movies of mass destruction. But key to the process was for Hollywood to reclaim their territory: They had to take this horrific real-life event -- which everyone remarked, "looked just like a movie" -- and exorcise it by turning it into just another movie. Thus Universal gave us "United 93," Sony has the upcoming "102 Minutes," and Paramount dominates this month with "World Trade Center."

When you see the name Oliver Stone in the credits for "WTC," you'll immediately suspect there's a political, possibly even a conspiracy theory angle to the film, but you'd be wrong. Like its predecessor "United 93," Stone's "WTC" eschews all context and anything even resembling a political statement. (Conspiracy buffs will be better served by the controversial online documentary "Loose Change.")

I've already argued, in reviewing "United 93," that an absence of context plays into the hands of the Bush administration and their attempts to convince the public that 9/11 was some sort of bolt from the blue divorced from history or any sort of cause and effect process; "WTC" suffers from a similar fault.

Like "United 93," "WTC" remains focused on the details of one day, though Stone's film is much more concerned with human drama. In "United 93," the hijacked passengers seemed merely props in the depiction of the disaster: None of them were developed as characters. (Arguably, this was in keeping with that film's fly-on-the-wall faux-documentary style.) Stone, on the other hand, sees no point in showing the disaster unless there's a human drama to hook us, and in "World Trade Center," he's got one helluva tale.

The film's story is based on the true stories of two NYC cops, members of the Port Authority Police Department, who entered the first tower to help rescue people well after it had been struck by that hijacked plane.

Nicolas Cage plays John McLaughlin and Michael Pena plays Will Jimeno, two of only 20 people to emerge alive after the towers collapsed. Their story is a remarkable one, combining courage -- rushing into the concourse even as all hell is breaking loose around them -- with tenacity, as they cling to life trapped under the rubble.

The movie starts -- as all 9/11 movies must -- with that deceptively beautiful clear sky over Manhattan, and a normal morning's commute to work. As the cops begin their day, they notice a huge shadow pass over, followed by a giant thud and shuddering explosion. Assembled back at their HQ, they form a team under McLaughlin's command to enter the tower to respond to what they think is a "commuter air crash."

The most intensely terrifying part of Stone's film comes as the cops move into tower No. 1: People rush out streaming in blood, chaos is everywhere, and things can be heard falling off screen with ominous crashes. And then . . . well, everyone knows what happens, but the perspective of the towers coming down from inside the concourse is just unbelievable.

The second half of the film loses momentum -- it's hard to sustain the tension cinematically when it's mostly two guys trapped in darkness under tons of debris. Stone realizes this, and tries to vary the pace by cutting away to the men's families, with their wives played by Maria Bello ("A History Of Violence") and Maggie Gyllenhall ("Secretary"). There's also the story of ex-marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who -- seeing the events unfold on TV -- immediately puts on his old uniform and proceeds to Ground Zero to help in any way he can.

Stone makes it clear that its this spirit of self-sacrifice and dedication to the common good that he truly respects. A worthy stance -- and one that's assisted by fine performances from all his leads -- but when one looks at "WTC" 's middling performance at the U.S. box office, one wonders what was lacking. Perhaps audiences are not yet ready to revisit that terrible day. Perhaps the bitter acrimony resulting from the mismanaged Iraq war has long since destroyed the feelings of unity and purpose on display in "WTC." (It's interesting to note that the real-life Karnes re-enlisted to go fight al-Qaida and wound up doing two tours in an unrelated Iraq war.)

Also lacking is vengeance: In "United 93," at least the passengers get to take out the hijackers; in "WTC" there is no payback depicted. There's also the idea that Red State voters inherently avoid anything by Oliver "JFK" Stone, while Stone's Blue State base has been turned off by Paramount's hiring of Creative Response Concepts -- the same people who trashed liberal John Kerry's war record in the 2004 campaign -- to promote the film to conservatives.

Finally, despite what Hollywood thinks, maybe a good part of the public isn't ready yet to treat 9/11 as just another disaster movie. And that's not a bad thing.

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