TCS Daily

Natural Born Snoozer

By James Pinkerton - August 8, 2006 12:00 AM

Go see "World Trade Center," the new Oliver Stone movie. There, I said it. I don't want anyone to think I'm in any way disrespecting the heroes of 9-11 -- the brave men and women who went running up the stairs, into the fire, when others came running down.

So yes, to see the film is to bear patriotic and devotional witness, in a small way, to the events of Black Tuesday. Moreover, if "World Trade Center" does well, maybe director Stone will get the hint and stop making lefty-crazy movies such as "Salvador" and "JFK". Indeed, there's been evidence lately to suggest that Stone is on his best behavior, money-making-movie-making-wise, precisely because he needs some dough.

His recent films, such as "Commandante," (an admiring look at Fidel Castro) and "Alexander" (the legendary Greek conqueror channeling his inner Jim Morrison) have been non-performers, financially. Stone has openly admitted that he trimmed his ideological sails in making "WTC"; as he said in June, "The mantra is 'This is not a political film.'" So he made this film as straight down the middle as he could.

OK, that's enough about Stone's needs. Now, what about the audience's needs? Specifically, the need to be entertained, uplifted, or transported? You know, the things that people hope for when they see a show? Well, unfortunately, that's where "WTC" is a disappointment. The problem for ticket-buyers is that a de-politicized Stone is also a deflated Stone. In trying to keep politics out, the director has also left out aesthetics, not to mention plain old enjoyment.

Stone's best movies are "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." Yes, the politics of both films were strongly anti-war -- some might even say rancidly anti-American -- but they were from Stone's own passionate, Vietnam-vet heart, imbued with his own mad memories of the war and post-war. Both films were filled with beauty as well as bile, with lyricism as well as cynicism. Other Stone films might have been problematic, but they were nonetheless works of art: "Natural Born Killers," for example, was a vile celebration of serial killing, yet it made ultra-violence seem entertainingly trippy and psychedelic. And "Any Given Sunday" gave pro football a fresh sense of dignity and majesty, simultaneously brooding and glittering.

By contrast, "World Trade Center" takes an enormous subject and makes it seem small. And the fault lies not in the stars, but in the director. The film tells the true story of two Port Authority cops, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who volunteer, along with several comrades, to help with rescue efforts in the Twin Towers -- none of them knowing that both buildings would come crashing down on them minutes later. John and Will survive, barely, trapped in the rubble; all their fellow hero-cops are killed. Nearly a full day later, the two men are rescued.

That's a great story, and it's worth remembering that in addition to the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on 9-11, so did 23 members of the NYPD and 37 members of the Port Authority P.D. There's a modest memorial for the PAPD at LaGuardia Airport, and there's an online memorial webpage here, and now there's this film, which underscores that in a time of terror, anybody in uniform, anywhere, can end up as a hero, or a martyr, or both.

Everyone knows Nicolas Cage, of course. He's not credible as a Leading Man, but in his quirkiness, he can play Everyman as well as anyone. Even with his face covered with dust and dried spittle, the rest of his body buried in collapsed concrete, Cage manages to convey the basic human impulse to survive, even as his mind wanders back to his home life -- a wife and kids in the green suburbs. And Michael Peña, a strong moral center in "Crash" two years ago, is equally effective here; the most wrenching scene in the film comes early on, when Cage/McLoughlin, as the senior officer on the scene, asks for volunteers to go inside the still-standing towers: "Who's coming? Step forward." And while perhaps it was impossible for anyone to imagine the buildings both collapsing, nonetheless it was shearingly obvious that the situation was dangerous. Contradictory emotions -- loyalty, fear, honor, fatalism -- playing over his face, Peña/Jimeno is the first to step forward, saying, simply, in clipped NYC-ese, "I got it, Sarge." Others step forward, too, while most hang back.

It's a beautiful and poignant moment, because it shows humans as the mixed bags that they are -- that we are. And so we in the audience are left to ask the obvious question posed by any disaster movie: "What would I do if I were in that situation? Would I be a hero? A coward? Something in between?"

Unfortunately, there are few such moments, because "WTC" is mostly formulaic. The men go in, the building collapses, they are trapped, their spouses and children are left to wonder and worry. But we've seen it before, as the men wait to be found, as the families wait to see if they will be found while still alive.

Here's where Stone's determination to avoid politics left him, unfortunately, determined to avoid artistic risk. Although "WTC" makes great use of the latest in special effects technology -- the ruins of the towers are mostly computer-generated, as are the surrounding streetscapes -- it is leadenly unimaginative when it comes to showing violence, the mechanics of violence, or the impact of violence. By comparison, we can recall the George Clooney movie "Three Kings," about the 1991 Gulf War, full of fresh visual takes on bullets and the injuries they cause. That's not the most pleasant of subjects, of course, but hey, there's a war on -- on the screen. And the recent French film about World War One, "A Very Long Engagement," featured meditations on the physics of explosives and explosions, in ways that were witty as well as gory. One might have hoped for just as much from Stone, but no, there are no "natural born" ballets of carnage; he's playing it safe this time.

And let's face it: No matter how admirable the subject matter, "safe" is generally a synonym for "dull."

One can avoid politics and still delve deeper into the characters and their lives. One wonders, for example, about the interior thinking of the two men, beyond their families. Stone shows Jimeno being visited, briefly, by an apparition of Jesus. Anything else? What about some take on the personal effects of those thousands who were killed in the collapse? Any pieces of paper, a photo, cell phones, Blackberries -- anything like that? How about a ghost or two?

Now we can remind ourselves, this is a true story. So Stone is duty-bound to portray McLoughlin and Jimeno as exactly who they were. And if the two men, in fact, had only laudable thoughts about Jesus and their families, so be it. And let's even accept, as the film does, that the two men's families were heroic and virtuous, too. So OK, no dramatic flaws there to explore, either. But what about the past lives of McLoughlin and Jimeno -- was there anything other than Norman Rockwell-esque domestic order? Did any of them ever do anything bad, or have anything bad happen to them? Any shaping or transformative events? Any hard-earned lessons learned? Apparently not. In this movie, there are no villains, even the 9-11 hijackers are totally offscreen.

For the sake of his art -- and, I will assert, for the sake of the robust box office he was no doubt seeking -- Stone should have branched out, looking for more interesting and complicated characters and situations. If, as Tolstoy said, happy families are alike, then the director should have looked more widely for characters and story material. One interesting character, for example, is a retired Marine, David Karnes (Michael Shannon), who is working as a white-collar nebbish in Connecticut when he sees the World Trade Center on fire. Whereupon Karnes leaves his job, goes to church, gets his mission from God, gets a haircut, puts on his old uniform and -- presto! -- he is once again on duty with the USMC, at least in his own mind.

The reborn Staff Sgt. Karnes heads down to Manhattan, marches right through the police line, and begins searching for survivors. As portrayed, Karnes is more of a superhero than a flesh-and-blood character -- although there's nothing wrong with superheroes, especially if, as all superheroes do, he has a significant flaw. But one gets the feeling that Stone is channeling a character he knows into Karnes (such as, maybe, the strong and effective Sgt. Grodin, played by Willem Defoe in "Platoon"), and so there's nothing in the way of studied nuance in this figure, either.

To be sure, one shouldn't demand flaws for the sake of flaws. If something is perfect, it should be shown as perfect. But in that case, for the sake of the audience, the artist must juxtapose the perfect and the imperfect -- how else can one know perfection, except though comparing and contrasting? There's a reason that religion and drama, like life itself, always feature a bad guy, or a bad spirit, or a bad bunch.

Evil, or at least imperfection, introduces tension, choice, and, yes, tragedy. That's what gives a drama its plotline and punch, making it more enjoyable, as well as more instructive, than mere still life.

"World Trade Center" is a movie about a great topic. But unfortunately, that doesn't make it a great movie -- or even a good one.

Late Update: On Monday, after months of being good, Oliver Stone fell off the de-politicized wagon. USA Today's Anthony Breznican, clearly irked at Stone's political closed-mouthedness, did his best to tempt Stone to take a swig of the ol' 200 proof conspiracy juice. Phrases that crept into Breznican's article -- "the apolitical surface of the film has earned Stone unlikely support from right-wing pundits" -- were a clear signal that the reporter was trying to "out" the director.

When Breznican asked Stone how he could avoid the political implications of 9-11, Stone did his best, at least for awhile to follow his apolitical mantra: "That's another issue beyond the confines of this film," adding that the movie is "just about those two men and women and that Marine and what they did that day with the rescue team."

But finally, Breznican got his way, asking Stone if the movie is an endorsement, therefore, of President Bush. Stone took the bait: "Bush makes Nixon look like St. Augustine," the filmmaker answered, recalling the saint best known for his detailed confessions. "At least Nixon had some intelligence and a conscience .... Bush is The Manchurian Candidate." Concludes Breznican, having finally gotten his quarry to say what he really thinks of Bush: "Stone is not a fan."

It will be interesting to see what happens now, with the film opening tomorrow. Every interviewer is going to want Stone to explain/expand his comments to Breznican. And if that happens, all the hard p.r. work to get the film positioned as centrist will go up in the smoke of Stone's vaporous politics. And that will be, in a way, a shame, because the 9-11 families have suffered enough.

James Pinkerton is the TCS Daily media critic.



Thanks but No Thanks.
Putting 10 or 12 bucks into some Hollyweird flick does nothing to "bear patriotic and devotional witness, in a small way". On the contrary, it will provide a financiall reinigorated stone with seed money for his next cinematographic assault on reality, since Stone remains a demented left-wing nut job (ok, I repeat myself).

I think I'll throw a few quid at some FDNY widows and orpan fund, rather than enable some Hollywood has-been to continue quaffing from the fountain of lunacy.

Screw Hollywood, if you think they are overpaid, overindulged pimadonnas, keep your money, if Stone is broke-he can get a job.

Oliver Stone
COuld someone remind me again why I'm supposed to care about this guy? I'm saddened to admit this but . . . I have actually seen Alexander. I have no desire to see anything else this guy could come up with. And if it's boring there's no way I'm going to sit through ten min of commercials after eight bucks just to fall asleep 20 min later.

Here is a suggestion.
I would love to see a movie done on the final weeks of the fall of poor Constantinople in 1453. It would be in the range of the recent Troy movie and could have great combat scenes. Than we could see in detail the pathetic combat abilities of muslims troops.
Historical sources say Mehmet had anywhere from 100,000-130,000 troops to 7,800 Greek and Italian-allied troops that held them off for 7 weeks. They only scaled the walls when the Italian leader Giustanni was mortally wounded and evacuated from his position causing a panic in the entire Italian force, thus leaving open a large part of undefended wall. Poor Constantine than died fighting for his lost empire when he knew all was doomed.
A great director could do very much with this sad event in Christian history and make a truly great film.

Now I'm confused
I understand Pinkerton's criticism. But it also seems like, as soon as Stone's BDS is revealed, what has been described as a snoozer loser suddenly is something that 9/11 families deserve to have all of us see. There is definite ambivalence here.

I am no fan of Stone and boycott Hollywood at every opportunity, though I used to enjoy seeing a few movies a year. Now I get to 1 or 2, because I'm repulsed by all those who won't just shut up and act or direct. Leave the BDS home for cripe's sake. I knew as soon as I started seeing positive reviews by some conservative bloggers and pundits that the Lefty Knives would come out, and sure enough! Hubby thought we'd see it but I now won't spend the $$.

Now "United 93" was a excellent movie! So far, and maybe forever, the only good movie made about 9/11. 99% of Hollywood is incapable of dealing with the subject in any decent and meaningful way.

very good post
In the end it is because they can't find a way to skew a strong anti-American theme into it. Give 'em a few more years and they will make a "born on 9/11" type movie.

I just wanna see zombies.

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