Friday, August 11, 2006

Facing 9/11

EAST BRUSNWICK, N.J. - New Pulse article here---and then some thoughts on Oliver Stone's new film World Trade Center (*** out of ****), which I got to see Wednesday evening.

As you can see with the Pulse article, it's meant to be a brief critical survey of sorts regarding how Hollywood has already, in some ways, addressed 9/11 both emotionally and politically in indirect ways even before this year's two mainstream attempts at dealing with the tragedy directly---Stone's film and Paul Greengrass's United 93, released earlier this year. There were many other films I wanted to mention in the piece: V for Vendetta, for instance (a skillful piece of anti-Bush allegorical agitprop), and, heck, even Mission: Impossible III, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman's character revealed a plot that had something to do with forcing America to go to war over false information. (That little plot complication also has echoes of the war-concocted-by-oil-companies plot that eventually revealed itself in the latter third of the second season of 24.) But Steven Spielberg's two films last year---the unjustly maligned War of the Worlds and Munich---were, I thought, good examples of the two ways many filmmakers have taken to dealing with the world after 9/11.

Obviously, one of the major concerns of any mainstream Hollywood movie tackling such a generation-defining and sad event in our history is that it'll exploit the tragedy for the sake of pumped-up suspense and theatrics. That's the risk Paul Greengrass took with United 93 in detailing, in something close to real time, the confused response of air control stations on the ground to the 9/11 attack and the heroic response of the passengers on the doomed Flight 93, the one that went down into a field in Shanksville, PA as the passengers tried to overpower the terrorists and regain control of the plane. Personally, I think Greengrass mostly avoided exploitation, although I could see some people looking at it and saying, "Isn't this simply 9/11 as deglamorized Hollywood action spectacle?" I suppose one could reasonably argue that there was limited value and insight offered by Greengrass' faux-documentary style in United 93, although I think there were some valid issues raised indirectly in the film, especially in depicting the way bureaucracy seemed to tie up the possibility of a quicker response to the unfolding tragedy on the ground.

If United 93 was a more distanced and "intellectual" approach to tackling 9/11 directly, Stone's new film presents a more spiritual and emotional approach. Ultimately, I'm not sure if either film goes far enough in really tackling head-on the implications of 9/11 in an inquisitive, insightful, and meaningful way; nevertheless, I do think both films present laudable baby steps for Hollywood to deal with the realities of 9/11 in a way that doesn't smack of exploitation or meaningless "entertainment." Consider both films two sides of the same dark coin.

There's a lot to admire about World Trade Center, so let me get my reservations out of the way first.

Oliver Stone has consistently said that he consciously made sure that his film was resolutely "apolitical": no conspiracy theories, no preachiness, no grandstanding in the manner of, say, his JFK or Nixon. This was going to be strictly a film about people, not about making any grand political statements about 9/11 or the War on Terror or anything like that. (Maybe Stone saw Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and figured the 9/11 conspiracy theory market had been cornered?)

Still, making an ostensibly "apolitical" film that mines uplift out of tragedy is still, I'd say, a political act. It's the same political impulse that led Steven Spielberg to focus on the Schindler Jews instead of the rest of the six million killed in the Holocaust in Schindler's List and led Terry George to focus on Paul Rusesabagina's heroism in the midst of otherwise horrible ethnic cleansing in Hotel Rwanda. Political and also maybe a bit too...well, "Hollywood." It often seems that, faced with the possibility of devastating an audience in exploring the full extent of a real-life atrocity, Hollywood would rather try to send an audience out happy with stories of "triumphs of the human spirit" instead of really bothering the hell out of them---arguably a more appropriate, more lasting response to something like the Holocaust, Rwandan genocide, or 9/11. If one were in a more cynical mood, one might also go so far as to call it "cowardly," since such films---as much as they may contain moments of sheer horror and backhanded recognitions of the tragedy surrounding these uplifting stories---ultimately seem less interested in facing the horrifying realities of a tragedy than in gaining mass acceptance and favor by trying to mine tears of joy out of tragedy, by trying to tell a "happy" story about survivors instead of taking the more politically resonant angle and look into the eye of the abyss and make sense of how such a terrible event could happen.

For that reason, I must admit that there were some moments in World Trade Center that couldn't help but feel a bit cliched or Hollywood-fakey to me. As much as I'm willing to grant that perhaps the real John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage in the film) or William Jimeno (Michael Pena) experienced their ordeal---being trapped under WTC rubble for 14 agonizing hours---in ways similar to what Stone depicts in this film, I just can't help feeling that scenes like Jimeno singing the Starsky and Hutch theme to McLoughlin or McLoughlin's near-death dream sequence with his wife (Maria Bello) telling him to remain steadfast seems just a smidge like Hollywood melodrama leftovers---corny, in other words. Its most problematic aspect, though, is the way Stone characterizes ex-Marine Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) as an ultra-religious Marine who hears about the rescue effort at Ground Zero and, as he says, feels compelled by God to act. As "apolitical" as Stone says his movie is, its characterization of Karnes is probably his most overtly political touch, unsubtly celebrating these noble rescuers as heroic children of God. Call me heartless or insensitive, but such moments seemed to me as if Stone himself were trying to resist the impulse to lapse into such corniness while giving into said impulse. (The Karnes touch, especially, struck me as just a little over-the-top.)

And yet...there is no denying the sincerity and spirituality behind such seemingly melodramatic gestures, because they are part and parcel of what I think World Trade Center is really about. No, the film doesn't evade the fact that it takes place on Sept. 11; but, take away that fact and what you're left with is Stone's abstract meditation on the way we grieve, the way we handle impending death, the way we all react to grand-scale tragedy (and certainly the 20th century wasn't lacking in mass atrocity). In that, World Trade Center gets at emotional truth in a way that United 93, for all its skill as filmmaking and for all its tastefulness, never really did.

And damned if some of it wasn't genuinely touching or moving---because we all grieved that day, in our own ways. Will Jimeno, for instance, sees startling visions of Jesus as he's trapped under the rubble when he seems to be losing hope---visions which Stone visually depicts onscreen as bathed in spiritually fortifying light, as Jesus seems to extend something out to Will to hold on to. McLoughlin generally tries to be more realistic and calm, but his saving grace eventually comes in a near-death vision of his loving wife Donna (a halo seems to form around the edges of the frame in this sequence). Jimeno's wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) runs around frantically as she worries about the safety of her husband, while Donna is sometimes as calm as her husband, even as she deals with one son who insists on going to Ground Zero to find his father ("don't you want to find him?" he asks---a gut-wrenching moment). In World Trade Center, Stone seems to be aiming for some kind of intimate yet epic panorama of emotion engendered by the 9/11 tragedy, and, if it doesn't necessarily have more to add about our understanding of what happened on 9/11 (that's something I think United 93 does provide, at least in small moments), it's still a valid artistic response---even more startlingly artful than United 93, admittedly---because it delves into the vast array of emotions inspired by the event and taps into a kind of ineffable deep spirituality that no news broadcast or documentary has come close to evoking. World Trade Center may be a slightly compromised effort---compromised by the need to satisfy the mass appetite for uplift---but it has moments of emotional truth, enriched by Stone's eye for expressive imagery (9/11 rubble as a vision of purgatory) and a sincere emotional vision, that should not be gainsaid.

P.S. It seems like eerily precise timing that, just after a brand new 9/11 movie opens, we get news that another large-scale terrorist plot---this involving liquid explosives concealed in sports drink bottles to be snuck onto airplanes---had been in the works. At least this one was foiled (though by British police, not by us---perhaps a telling detail to some). I suppose it's cool that the news media is actually giving a sizable amount of TV time and page space to detailing a triumph in the War on Terror; it, at least temporarily, gives lie to the typical view of the news media as fearmongers. Good news, certainly, although horrible things are still going on in Lebanon and in Iraq. Let's not forget that, just as we shouldn't forget about the people that died on 9/11 even as we watch a movie detailing the way two people were rescued. Let's keep some perspective here, in other words.

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