To hell with the world

Pub date August 8, 2006
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

One question that has swirled around Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center is whether it is too soon to make a film about the WTC attacks. Survivors have compared their experiences to Bruce Willis movies, The Planet of the Apes, and The Towering Inferno, and the rest of us only ever experienced the event as representation anyway — is it too soon to turn a disaster film into a disaster film? Or is it too soon to turn the deaths of more than 2,700 people into entertainment?
Perhaps fearing such criticism, Stone doesn’t entertain; instead, he’s created one of the most plodding disaster flicks ever made. By focusing on two Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble, Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), Stone tries to form a heavily underlined allegory about passing through hell to make it to the light.
There is an oft-repeated urban legend about an actress — Pia Zadora, usually — who is so awful in a theatrical production of The Diary of Anne Frank that during the second act, as the Nazis are searching the house, somebody in the audience calls out, “They’re in the attic!” Cage approaches that level of performance here. He usually conveys “befuddled” and “dopey” with a kind of genius, but Stone highlights his regular-guy qualities and removes humor and irony to create a caricature of virtuous and inarticulate American masculinity. Cage’s failed attempt to act against type combined with Stone’s blaring sentimentality might easily lead audiences to hope against hope that the next crumbling building will drop a girder just so and end this tortured performance for good.
The sappy music and fuzzy domestic scenes that Stone relies on to convince us we should care about his characters only suggest instead that Americans, in our relationship to technology, have stopped being human. Stone, at least, seems to believe that we wouldn’t know what to feel about death and salvation without an orchestra drowning out our ability to feel anything but contrived replicas of grief and hope. Cute and heartwarming moments usually serve to negate the reality of death. More profound cinematic journeys into hell, such as Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water, with its creepy Hello Kitty bags, and Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat in Space, with its badass fuzzy heroine, face death, complexify reality, and transform cute into its opposite; Hotel Rwanda never uses the “heartwarming” survival of its heroes to look away from the deaths of thousands. Turning historical events into heartwarming allegories is a problem generally, because it creates meaning at the expense of complexity; it’s also a problem specifically, because America didn’t actually pass through hell on Sept. 11 but settled in and began vigorously exporting hell.
If you expected Stone to give voice to the conspiracy theories that serve as a dreamworld underbelly to the official story, you’ll be disappointed. You want to feel the deep cosmic sadness that such mass death and terror deserve? Sorry. As a historian, Stone has made a career out of distorting our collective mythologies. He waited almost 20 years to make the Doors pompous and boring (The Doors, 1991), about 30 to take the fun out of “Who shot JFK?” conspiracy theories (JFK, 1991), and millennia to make Greek imperialism trite and campy (Alexander, 2004). Instead of the Native Americans who often pop up in Stone’s films to deliver wise and mystical sentences, there is an apocalyptic Christian ex-Marine, Dave Karnes, (Michael Shannon) saying things like, “God put this curtain of smoke here to hide something we aren’t yet ready to see.”
Or at least something horrible and complicated that Stone isn’t ready to show us. Jimeno has his own visions of Christ with a water bottle, and Karnes goes off at film’s end to Iraq to avenge the attack. Stone might like to hide his reactionary focus on vengeance and family values behind the screen of a true story, but his waving flags, footage of President Bush, Christian imagery, and use of the word evil are choices that convey obvious political messages. Although many were too distracted by Colin Farrell’s silly blond wig to notice, Stone already revealed his secret affection for imperial military adventures in Alexander. Even worse, World Trade Center doesn’t have any silly blond wigs to distract us and keep us from pondering the political message of making an apocalyptic catastrophe as boring as hell. (Stephen Beachy)