Wednesday, August 09, 2006
World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, 2006)
The message of Oliver Stone’s film of two Port Authority police officers trapped in the rubble of the World Trade Center towers is summed up in its epilogue; there is little to no subtlety or character development to be found; and the subplots are saccharine, melodramatic, or altogether unnecessary. And none of this really matters.
What does matter is the simple earnestness in the performances of Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as McLouglin and Jimeno; the brutal claustrophobia that engulfs any scene within the mangled wreckage; and the stark desperation from Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the wives. The film begins simply enough with an ordinary day for the Port Authority police and New York City in general. Friends joke, cars in traffic honk, officers walk their beats. Once the terrible tragedy occurs (tactfully off-screen), the world becomes black and white, and there is no room for subtlety. The main characters are thrown into a confused rush of victims, bystanders, rescuers, policemen, firemen…the anarchy that resulted from the devastating attack. Their objective is to help out, but before they really can, one of the towers and the entire world collapse around them. Harrowing is the only word for it. World Trade Center is both the loudest and quietest film of the year thus far. The sound design rains destruction and chaos throughout the theater. Screams and anguish flood the tiny open spaces between hunks of twisted wreckage and concrete rubble. Despondency sets in quickly, and McLoughlin and Jimeno make a grave pact to see each other through the calamity. Their helplessly quiet dialogue and struggle to keep conscious are the restrained, human responses to their apocalyptic scenario.
It is here that the main thrust of the film, the parallel stories of the two officers and their families, begins. To call these segments “sentimentalized” or “Hollywoodized” is to miss the straightforward, apolitical impact of the film. The worst has happened, and the families must react. Both families have several children, and one wife is pregnant. Reality provides and transcends clichés. As Maria Bello walks around her house practically in a daze, she imagines her husband fixing the roof, or teaching their son how to do carpentry. Both men hear their wives’ voices and imagine seeing them. Overwrought? Formulaic? Perhaps. But what are they all supposed to be thinking about? I had no direct relation to the tragedy, but during that entire day, every moment that I was not intensely focused on something else, I thought about what had happened. A particularly effective scene in this vein focuses on Gyllenhaal suddenly realizing the banality of shopping in a drug store. Each of these moments felt just about or beyond poignant, perhaps even overtly melodramatic, but life, especially in light of the universality of this event, need not apologize for its inherent drama.
When the film reaches beyond the two men or their immediate families, it falters. A patriotic and religious former Marine (Michael Shannon) seems to symbolize the men and women who signed up following September 11, but his inhuman and emotionless passivity towards duty makes him less than sympathetic. A bizarre vision by Jimeno of Jesus with a water bottle is head-scratching rather than realistically “stranger than fiction.”
But these instances do not take away from the obvious, heartfelt power of all involved, even the otherwise controversial and political Oliver Stone. He (and screenwriter Andrea Berloff) is not out to tell every story of that day, nor to cover its implications, nor to whitewash the catastrophe of that day. His subjective focus on two families’ near tragedy is traumatic but ultimately hopeful that courage and dignity can inspire hope even in the face of such a disaster. Too soon? Hardly. Too sentimental? A film like this could not be.