Monday, August 21, 2006

World Trade Center / **** (PG-13)

Sgt. John McLoughlin: Nicolas Cage
Donna McLoughlin: Maria Bello
Will Jimeno: Michael Pena
Allison Jimeno: Maggie Gyllenhaal
USMC Staff Sgt. David Karnes: Michael Shannon

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Andrea Berloff. Based on the true stories of John & Donna McLoughlin and Will & Allison Jimeno. Running time: 125 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language).

Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” tells the story of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, trapped after the collapse of the twin World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. It also tells of the emotional turmoil suffered by these men’s wives, Donna McLoughlin and Allison Jimeno. It tells of the emotional and physical perseverance of these four people. It is simply a story of survival and nothing else.

“World Trade Center” is not a detailed account of everything that happened on that historic and horrific day. It is not a political film. It is not an indictment of the Bush administration, or an attack on the conspiratorial nature of our government or any other. It is not a flag-waving, patriotic, “let’s pat ourselves on the back for being Americans” propaganda piece, as some critics have suggested. Nor does it carry a message of Christian righteousness just because one of the rescuers was “called” to duty by God. It depicts the ordeal of these two men and these two women during that event that touched our whole country, our whole world, and so it may seem to be more than what it is.

At the same time, though, it is more. People will not be able to walk into the theater or pop in the DVD without bringing to it their own baggage. As a film buff, I am one of those rare audience members who enjoys going to the theater by myself. One reason I think that is, is because when I’m alone it is easier to dump that baggage and just experience a film.

My wife didn’t think she could handle this film emotionally, and she may have made the right decision. Seeing it by myself, it was a rough passage. I am not a man who ever expresses much emotion and there were several points in the film where I could not hold back the tears, the exhaustion, the weight, the pain, or even the shame the images I saw presented to me.

What this film does so well is to make a very personal connection with its audience by presenting the specific stories of these four individuals. While these stories take place during a real life disaster almost all Americans have some sort of connection to, it is not presented like a typical disaster picture. It is not about the disaster, but about the people.

There are almost no images of the towers falling. And those iconic images which are referenced have little meaning to the characters involved as they are occurring.
Jimeno sees the shadow of a plane across a building when on duty at the Port Authority. The officers see Tower One burning as they approach the scene and rumors about a second plane hitting Tower Two circulate, but since they can only see the smoke from Tower One they dismiss it as not possible. When Tower One falls, we are given a brief glimpse of the debris coming down outside Building Five between the Twin Towers, where McLoughlin and Jimeno were located at the time, but they only just have time to react before any realization of what is happening becomes apparent.

Stone does not bother to recreate those images we all saw hundreds of times in the days following 9/11. This gives us a more direct line into the humanity of the two men trapped under the wreckage, since we are only given the insight they have into their own situation as they struggle to survive. It also allows us to connect more directly with their wives’ frustration as later in the day they have been subjected to those same televised images of the towers falling that we can’t help but remember viewing over and over again.

There are some effective reaction shots taken from news coverage of people throughout the world as they watched the actual events unfold. These do a good job in serving as audience representation of emotion, keeping enough reminder of where the rest of us were emotionally as we are simultaneously immersed in the unique emotions of the McLoughlins and the Jimenos.

It will be no surprise if the cast members are honored during awards season this year. Nicolas Cage (“National Treasure”) turns in another subtly powerful performance as the fairly soft spoken John McLoughlin, and Michael Pena (“Crash”) is a fresh face in the challenging role of Will Jimeno, who must do most of the work to keep the two men going long enough for rescue.

It is the women who must carry a great deal of the kinetic energy of the film, however. Maria Bello (“A History of Violence”) has the task of providing the film’s emotional stability, playing the veteran policeman’s wife Donna. She’s dealt the tough hand of having to remain strong for their four children, one of whom insists she is not doing enough. Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Criminal”) has a totally different stress to deal with as Allison, the wife of the younger officer, with both his and her families treating her with the delicateness reserved for a woman whose future has just disappeared only months away from the birth of their second child.

There are other characters that play peripheral roles, such as the former EMT played by Stone regular Frank Whaley (“The Doors”), one of the first men to go in after Jimeno and McLoughlin. A more prominent supporting character is USMC Staff Sgt. David Karnes (Michael Shannon, “Bad Boys II”). The Marine is credited with finding the two Port Authority officers, and much has been made of the character’s religious motivations. There is little development given to these smaller roles, which are included mostly as reference to the facts of what happened and to honor these men for their efforts in a story that could not exist without them. Their religion or politics are not the point, but rather the fuel for their being there.

I have read some comments disparaging Stone’s and screenwriter Andrea Berloff’s lack of subtlety. At one point Staff Sgt. Karnes looks at the cloud surrounding Ground Zero and says it is “like God made a curtain with the smoke to shield us from what we're not ready to see.” Whether these are really Karnes’ words or not, it does wax a little poetical, but isn’t that part of the point of making a film about it? Plus it is quite a beautiful way to look at that ugly scar of smoke that hung off the end of Manhattan Island for so long.

For the most part, however, Stone (“Nixon”, “Alexander”) is like a director reborn. Gone are all of his typical directorial signatures of revolving film stock and aggressive editing. Stone has gone back to the basics of seemingly straightforward camera direction, and it is as if he has rediscovered the gift of beautiful photography. He photographs New York in the opening moments of the film with the loving care of a lifelong resident, capturing the crispness of the fateful fall morning. And when Jimeno is finally pulled from the wreckage crying, “Where are all the buildings?” the audience can finally see just why “Ground Zero” was such an appropriate moniker for what had only shortly before been one of the world’s financial capitals.

I suppose my own personal baggage, having lived in and loved New York, allowed me to see the film Oliver Stone wanted me to see, while others may merely see a disaster picture and more of Stone’s agenda-driven posturing. But the emotional effect this movie had on me was so strong, I’m tempted to say it is a film everybody would do good to see, if only to discover how far along the healing process each of us has come since 9/11.

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