World Trade Center: The movie

I thought I was going to die. As the cloud of destruction caught up with me, hitting me in the back with pieces of the World Trade Center and then enveloping me in darkness, my first thought was anger — not yet at the people who had done this but at me, for being there, for dying, for leaving my family. Next, I wondered whether I would be buried there on the street and whether I would be found.

I dreaded seeing Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center for many reasons. First, I thought the cloud of dust and death would bring back too many memories, would make it too real again. But no, the mountain of destruction that Port Authority Police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno survived was their own hell, far worse than anything I saw and far worse in reality, the two men have said, than anything that could be depicted in a movie.

No, what was worse for me was watching the families, feeling their fear and loneliness, their anger, despair, and resignation. I thought of my family; on the first anniversary of the day, my wife said she told people that day that I was missing, which had not occurred to me before that. And then I thought of the thousands of families who did not close that day, as Stone’s heroes can, with happy endings and cheers.

And, yes, I also dreaded the movie because of who made it. I feared what Oliver Stone would do to this story with his tin-foil theories and lump-of-lead style. But he had the wisdom to stand aside and let the tale tell itself. This is a story that cannot bear subtlety, and so perhaps Stone was the right person to tell it. But I must say that I find it hard to judge the film myself, to withdraw to a critical distance. For me and for so many others, this is more than a movie. It is memory.

There are moments in the film that mesh and do not mesh with my memory. As the Port Authority Police squad arrives downtown, we see that first piece of paper floating down to a corner of the screen. That white, cold blizzard of lives interrupted, falling from the painfully blue sky of that day — which I walked through, occasionally picking up one piece of a memo or expense account to read about the end of ordinariness — was indescribable in its emotional impact, and so it is fitting and eloquent that it starts here with just one sheet. But the sounds weren’t quite right. As Stone shows footage panning up to the burning tower, we hear a roar. No, I recall the roar of a jet and then of flame and finally the roar of the building collapsing, but inbetween, it was oddly silent there. There were still sounds to be heard — horrific sounds and terrified gasps in response — but these were strangely quiet noises. And after the tower fell, after the roar and crash and screams, it was silent again. The speed of it is also out of sync for me. When the officers arrive inside the towers, Stone shows a line of people moving at refugee speed: slowly, as in a death march. I don’t remember that at all. Before we knew what had happened in the towers, we moved at New York speed and then, when the disaster became apparent, life sped up. I will always recall the police officer who shouted at us as we came out under Tower Five and as debris rained down still: “Run!” she yelled, “Run!” And then we turned around and stared, still again. There was no slow that day. I will always remember the faces of the first responders as they went into the towers and Stone and his stars got that exactly right: determination matched with fear. And then there is the veil of smoke. When Jimeno comes out of his hole, he asks what happened to the buildings; even he did not know they were gone. Neither did I. All I saw was the top coming down as I ran away; that’s all I knew for hours. The Marine who rescues the men says in the film, “God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not yet ready to see.”

But this is not a critique of the movie, more of the memory. There is much to praise and little to fault in World Trade Center. Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena as the rescued police and Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello as their wives play their roles with dignity, humanity, and honesty. The script is as straightforward as it can be. Stone brings to life the scenes of destruction with sweeping skill and, as other reviewers have pointed out, unprecedented restraint.

There is also much to praise in the mission of the movie, expressed by one of the players in a voiceover at the end: To show not just the evil of that day but the good and to recognize the heroes.

But I also wonder what more of the story we should be telling now. What is the message about 9/11 that our culture leaves? World Trade Center and United 93 our the first war movies for this war. They are from the front. And they each follow a formula of the form. World Trade Center is the buddy movie: two comrades in arms fighting side-by-side to survive and do good, showing their humanity and their love. United 93 is the movie that shows us the bad guys and leaves us free to despise them. Both celebrate the heroism of our guys on our side, as war movies must. Both stick as hard to the facts of their stories as they can, assiduously not trying to make political or historic points; old war movies assume the agenda but these seem to avoid it. The two movies differ in their endings: United 93 clearly cannot give us a happy ending in that field in Pennsylvania, but Stone’s World Trade Center does: cheers from the army of first-responders hoisting McLoughlin into daylight and hugs from the families as the men battle back.

But are there truly happy endings to this story yet? McLoughlin and Jimeno said on the Today show that they do not pay attention to the anniversary approaching or any of those past because after what they survived and how it changed their lives, every day is a sufficient reminder of 9/11. Only 20 people were rescued from the debris of the World Trade Center and when I met another of them, Pasquale Buzzelli, a few years ago, I noted that survival is only the beginning of an entirely new story filled not just with gratitude and hope but also with pain, anger, and guilt. Buzzelli’s story, I said then, is the story of the attacked America, slowly recovering. Do we have the truly happy ending that war movies depend upon: victory? No. Have we seen the story of the evil men who did this, the enemy, exposing their black and empty souls? No, we continue to avoid that in some perverted dance of sensitivity and correctness, when I say what the world most needs to do is face that evil, eye-to-eye. I’ve said that this is the one time we need Stone’s conspiracy theories but they are not theories here. But the story of these men is not the template for that.

So I don’t fault Oliver Stone and his World Trade Center for anything. But I think it is necessary to remind ourselves that this is only one small story, two happy endings among so many thousands of unhappy ones. It is one chapter in a much larger story that is not near an ending yet.

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Other reaction from elsewhere:

In the New York Times, local columnist Clyde Haberman wrote a column about the movie that I found to be the height of snideness. It begins with a shocking lack of respect:

Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” opens in theaters tomorrow, having benefited from more free publicity than even Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes could dream of.

Here is a man who clearly will use anything for cheap gag in a lead.

Inevitably, some have protested that it is “too soon” for a movie like this; in those ranks are at least a few relatives of 9/11 victims. . . .

None of these protesters offer a hint as to when it may not be “too soon” — 7 years after the fact, 10 years, 25? Is there some unwritten statute of limitations that must expire before Americans may explore cinematically the most devastating attack ever on their soil?

Clearly, the answer is no. . . .

It seems not to have occurred to some too-sooners that there is a simple way to cope with their emotional turmoil over this film: Don’t go.

By not going, they will enjoy the side benefit of saving themselves the price of a ticket.

And it only gets worse, as he attacks Rudy Guiliani for having the temerity to have a political career after City Hall. And then he says:

Money issues aside, the Oliver Stone movie may raise important questions about our tolerance for possibly unpopular points of view.

I can’t parse what he means there. Is he trying to raise the notion that the attack is somehow our fault? Is he merely attacking Guliani?

What if a future filmmaker wishes to explore aspects of 9/11 that are not soul-stirring? What if some people trapped inside the twin towers are portrayed as far-from-noble figures? Or if a movie dwells on the catastrophic failure of communications between the Police and Fire Departments that occurred on Mr. Giuliani’s watch, a breakdown that was perhaps responsible for hundreds of needless deaths?

Will people say that artistic freedom is a supreme American virtue, even if it means exposing some warts?

Or will they declare 9/11 to be sacred, rendering blasphemous any challenge to its heroic story line?

On this score, the real test of free expression may still lie ahead.

Well, clearly, nothing is sacred to Haberman.

: Says The Times’ A.O. Scott:

But Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” rather than digging for meanings and metaphors, represent a return to the literal.

Both films revisit the immediate experience of Sept. 11, staking out a narrow perspective and filling it with maximum detail. Mr. Stone, much of whose film takes place at ground zero, does not share Mr. Greengrass’s clinical, quasi-documentary aesthetic. His sensibility is one of visual grandeur, sweeping emotion and heightened, sometimes overwrought, drama.

There are many words a critic might use to describe Mr. Stone’s films — maddening, brilliant, irresponsible, provocative, long — but subtle is unlikely to be on the list. Which makes him the right man for the job, since there was nothing subtle about the emotions of 9/11. Later there would be complications, nuances, gray areas, as the event and its aftermath were inevitably pulled into the murky, angry swirl of American politics. But that is territory Mr. Stone, somewhat uncharacteristically, avoids.

: Desson Thomson in the Washington Post:

When the movies revisit tragedy of grand scale, a viewer’s underlying hope is to learn something new and illuminating beyond the immediate story. In a film about two policemen trapped under the collapsed World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, for example, one wants it to go further than chronicle their anguish. It should ask: What did they learn under that bone-crushing steel and concrete? How was the experience for their loved ones, who waited desperately for word of their survival as the world looked on? What was it like to be an American during that time — or a human being? How do we respond to tragedy?

“World Trade Center,” Oliver Stone’s film about Port Authority officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (played, respectively, by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña), is long on veneration for its subjects and scrupulous in portraying the details, big and small, of what unfolded that day. But it shortchanges audiences when it comes to dramatic revelations that could have resonated on a deeper level. It telegraphs its emotions loud and clear, but somehow they don’t reach us.

: Kenneth Turan in the LA Times:

It’s taken the Hollywood system five years to come up with a major motion picture about what happened at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, but if you think that time was used for thoughtful introspection and careful analysis about the best way to approach those agonizing and unprecedented events, you just don’t know Hollywood.

What that time has gone into instead is making the story of Sept. 11 fit as closely as possible into the business-as-usual norms of sentimental studio moviemaking. The problem is not so much that “World Trade Center” is an attempt to make a feel-good movie about a ghastly situation, it’s that the result feels forced, manufactured and largely — but not entirely — unconvincing.