I defy anyone with a pulse not to be moved by World Trade Center, Oliver Stone's wrenching cinematic account of two New York Port Authority cops trapped in the rubble when the twin towers fell. And I don't mean moved in a sappy, Hallmark, easy-on-the-heartstrings way. This is a profoundly affecting film -- dramatic, disturbing, at times painful, but in the end hopeful and triumphant.
Stone uses his filmmaking skills to slowly -- and then shockingly -- bring us back to the events of 9/11. We never see the planes hit the towers, but the horror and confusion that followed are palpably real. The film thrusts us right into the middle of the mayhem, side by side with a group of Port Authority cops who volunteer to help evacuate the World Trade Center -- and are instantaneously propelled into a living hell as the towers collapse. The sequence where tons of metal and concrete rain down and the officers scramble for their lives is one of the most horrifying ever captured on film. This is bravura filmmaking -- and it is used to shattering effect (no one says it, but our minds instantly jump to the thousands who perished in those dreadful moments).
But the film is not about the death and destruction that so marked the day (although they certainly aren't avoided). It's about the heroism and humanity that flowered in the midst of the devastation. The focus is on the miraculous survival of Port Authority officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno -- played by Nic Cage and Michael Peña -- who were two of only 20 people eventually pulled from the rubble alive.
Their conversations as they -- badly injured and trapped under a mountain of debris -- desperately try to stay alive are at the center of the film. They range from the profound to the mundane -- but at their heart is the trapped men's love for their families.
Oliver Stone has always been obsessed with the nature of heroism and heroic men -- from the gonzo journalist of Salvador to Ron Kovic in Born on the 4th of July to Jim Garrison in JFK -- and this film is no different.
You can't help but get a lump in your throat when the Port Authority cops initially head into the towers to help evacuate them or when the rescue crews risk their lives crawling into the burning, jagged rubble to rescue McLoughlin and Jimeno or when Dave Karnes, a retired Marine working as an accountant in Connecticut, sees the attacks and feels called by God to respond. Karnes gets a buzz cut, puts on his old uniform, and heads down to Ground Zero to help out -- and eventually finds the two trapped cops, who beg him not to leave them. "We're not leaving you," replies Karnes, his eyes filled with righteousness and rage. "You are our mission."
The film's portrayal of Karnes -- a character whose implausible actions would be rejected by any screenwriter if they hadn't actually happened -- as a mythic hero raises the question: Is this a political film? And, if so, what political position does it take?
My answer is that, when it comes to politics, World Trade Center is the cinematic equivalent of a Rorschach test. People will see in it what they want to see. Already, some are hailing it as a "flag-waving, God Bless America film" (Cal Thomas), while others are describing it as "apolitical" (Ryan Sager). They're both right -- and wrong.
It's neither jingoistic nor apolitical. Its politics is woven within the fabric of the movie and within our own memories of that historic day.
For me, the film serves as a reminder of what is at stake in the fight against terrorism (if we needed reminding, given what's filling our TV screens night after night) -- and what has been squandered by the Bush administration in terms of money, lives, and global goodwill.
One of the most moving scenes in the film comes near the end when Stone offers a montage of people in many different parts of the world, glued to their TVs watching news broadcasts of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath (the point is brought home at the end of the movie when a title card reminds us that people from over 80 countries died in the 9/11 attacks). We are reminded of how much solidarity there was for our country and for the cause of fighting terrorism ("We are all Americans!") and how the administration's disastrously misguided response to the attacks changed that. By taking its eye off the real battle at hand -- the fight against extremists, fanatics, and terrorists -- and taking us into Iraq, Bush has made America and the world far less safe.
In a closing voice over, Nic Cage's character talks about how 9/11 showed that human beings are capable of unspeakable evil but also heroic good. He says that 9/11 brought out the best in us -- and brought us together. What he doesn't say, but what we all know, is that the Bush administration's Iraq-obsessed response tore the country -- and much of the world -- apart.
I plan to see the movie again when it opens August 9 -- and take with me a friend from the other side of the political divide. I'd love to see how they react to the moment at the end of the movie when we learn that Karnes, the heroic, God-driven ex-Marine who discovered the two trapped cops, and vowed to make those responsible pay, ended up re-enlisting and doing two tours of duty in Iraq.
Would my imagery red-state friend see this revelation as iconic or as ironic? After all, Saddam Hussein and the people of Iraq had nothing to do with the suffering we've just spent two hours witnessing.
Is this beat meant to imply that Karnes was duped, as were the rest of us? Clearly, the impulse to make someone pay was the natural one, but the choice the White House made to invade Iraq was tragically twisted.
So for me, the revelation was clearly ironic. But I won't be surprised, since there is nothing didactic about the film, if my imaginary pal finds it iconic.