In the days after Sept. 11, 2001, some cultural commentators foresaw the end of an era of irony and cynicism — the death of a jaded, postmodern culture in which nothing could be taken seriously.
Writing for Time magazine, Roger Rosenblatt declared, “For some 30 years — roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright — the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes — our columnists and pop culture makers — declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life. … The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything.”
For close to that same period of time, Oliver Stone has made movies steeped in jaded cynicism and skepticism, if not always irony. From Platoon to Wall Street to JFK to Natural Born Killers, ruthlessness, corruption and decadence are the order of the day in Stone’s world.
You could say it’s ironic, then, that World Trade Center — as unabashed a tribute to heroism and human decency as Hollywood has produced in years — should be directed by Stone. Stone is personally hostile to patriotism and nationalism, which he has called “the two most evil forces that I know of in this century or in any century.” Yet World Trade Center is as wholesomely all-American as the prologue of Born on the Fourth of July — the key difference being that this time Stone isn’t setting up a house of cards in order to knock it down.
When three cops volunteer to rush into the crippled towers and try to rescue civilians, the film isn’t out to debunk their naïveté, but to honor their courage. When retired Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), surveying the smoking ruins of Ground Zero, declares that “It’s gonna take a lot to avenge this,” he isn’t expressing the blind rage of a bloodthirsty zealot but the grim resolve of a righteous warrior.
“9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of,” one character reflects in an epilogue set two years after the fact. “The evil, yeah, sure. But it also brought out a goodness we forgot could exist. … It’s important for us to talk about that good, to remember, because I saw a lot of it that day.”
Based on the true story of two police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (Nicholas Cage and Michael Peña) who were almost the last survivors to be pulled from the rubble of the Twin Towers, World Trade Center is so doggedly decent that a number of critics have suggested that it feels less like the work of an Oliver Stone than of a Ron Howard.
Perhaps it is even reminiscent of a particular Ron Howard movie: Backdraft, Howard’s tribute to the heroism of big-city first responders, those who rush toward blazing buildings while everyone else rushes away. An even more exact parallel might be a post-9/11 film has also been compared to Backdraft: Ladder 49, starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix in a story about a rescue effort involving a firefighter with a broken leg trapped in a burning warehouse.
Like Ladder 49, World Trade Center has a backdrop of Christian and Catholic faith. Crucifixes, crosses, a Bible and other religious items are in evidence, and one Catholic character actually has a vision-like experience of Jesus Christ modeled on the Sacred Heart image.
Also like Ladder 49 (and Backdraft), World Trade Center has its share of melodrama and cliché. Characters have lines like “I finally figured out the only thing I’m good at is helping people” and talk about “people taking care of each other, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.”
Sometimes this kind of writing may evoke an aura of unaffected sincerity; other times, it seems merely trite, perhaps reflecting the inexperience of first-time feature screenwriter Andrea Berloff. A flashback shows us Jimeno and his pregnant wife Alison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) snuggling in bed, playfully debating whether to name their unborn daughter Olivia or Alyssa. Then Will winds up trapped beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, and neither he nor Alison knows if they’ll ever see the other again. Sure enough, before you can say “The Gift of the Magi,” Alison, who originally liked Olivia, decides to switch to Alyssa, while Will, who wanted Alyssa, does his best to leave his wife a message urging her to choose Olivia.
World Trade Center includes some striking images and moments. As the police rush toward Ground Zero, they are engulfed in a blizzard of paper pouring from the gaping wounds in the crippled towers. Anonymous evacuees drift silently past the advancing police, some covered in dust or streaked with blood.
Alarming groans from the building above as the police proceed through the main concourse foreshadow the disaster they can hardly imagine. Then there’s a striking moment toward the end of the film, after nearly 24 hours of imprisonment under the rubble of the World Trade Center and nearly 12 hours of rescue efforts, as McLoughlin becomes one of the last people in the world to learn what actually happened to the Twin Towers.
But World Trade Center is more a character melodrama than the story of an event. When United 93 opened a few months back, there was some debate about whether it was “too soon” for a 9/11 film. I didn’t think it was too soon for a film like United 93, which brought extraordinary restraint and realism to the events it depicted without presuming to get inside the heads of its characters or explain their actions.
World Trade Center, by contrast, is a more conventional Hollywood film, with well-defined character arcs, dramatic dialogue and a swelling soundtrack to reinforce the mood. Where United 93 felt more like a serious quasi-documentary inquiry into an event, World Trade Center feels more like “just a movie,” if an inspirational one with a downbeat topic.
Is it “too soon” for a movie like this? No one can presume to answer that question for anyone else, but World Trade Center raises the question for me in a way that United 93 didn’t.
Content advisory: Sometimes bloody disaster violence; brief crude and obscene language. Teens and up.
Steven D. Greydanus
is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.