Friday, August 11, 2006

The Power and Patriotism of "World Trade Center"

My son and I saw "World Trade Center" on Wednesday, the day of the film's national release. This was a remarkable motion picture -- a must-see for every American -- a movie whose immediacy places the viewer virtually inside the film, experiencing up-close-and personal the tragedy and triumph of that September morning in 2001.

The movie's portrayal of the collapse of the Twin Towers -- with its victim's ground-floor view -- was one of the most powerful, unforgettable scenes I've ever seen in film. I think director Oliver Stone set exactly the right tone: violent and intense in the movie's recounting of the disaster, and heartwarming and uplifting in its retelling of the rescues of Sargeant John McLoughlin and Will Jemino. The viewer feels the fear of the police officers as they approach the burning towers, hesitant to enter but utimately resolved on performing their duty. The movie also rightly provides a patriotic look at the choosing-up of sides in the just-initiated war on terror, most clearly through the recounting of Sargeant David Karnes' contribution to the rescue efforts. We, too, want to be there, lending a hand to those whose pain and endurance gives voice to the fine fragility of human existence.

I've read mixed reviews of the film. A triumphalist take on "World Trade Center" was provided in Newsweek's August 7th cover story, "Natural Born Heroes." Reviewer David Anson says "'World Trade Center' celebrates the ties that bind us, the bonds that keep us going, the goodness that stands as a rebuke to the horror of that day."

Anson's review stands in contrast to Kenneth Turan's, the senior film reviewer at the Los Angeles Times. Turan takes exception to the film's straigthforward, meat-and-potatoes, pro-American approach to the terrorist attacks, hoping to see in the film less feel-goodism and more introspection:

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. For the reality of what took place on the streets of Lower Manhattan is such an overwhelmingly sad and troubling story that simply re-creating those horrific events, as this film does, guarantees that your work will have moments of power and emotion. A person's heart would have to be made of stone if he or she weren't at least a little affected by the against-all-odds rescue of two Port Authority policemen, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña, from beneath crushing piles of rubble, as their despairing wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, cry literal tears of joy. What the reality of the World Trade Center gives to a film, it can also take away. Because those events are guaranteed to elicit emotion in a way that is almost Pavlovian, we hold depictions of them to a higher standard. We don't want this story of all stories to devolve into a standard studio scenario, full of uplifting messages about bringing out "the goodness we forgot could exist." But, as directed by Oliver Stone and written by newcomer Andrea Berloff, that is just what we get. In part, this is because "World Trade Center" has been conceived as a memorial, a tribute to those who have fallen and those who survived, and memorials, while necessary and commendable, do not always make for the best drama. But more than this, though the events it depicts are real, questionable choices at key junctures have made "World Trade Center" play more contrived than heartfelt. It is a film that pushes too hard for emotional effects and displays a weakness for easy choices whenever it can.
Read the whole thing. Turan's among the best of the film reviewers working at the big national newspapers. He wrote a perceptive and historically-grounded analysis of "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004, which is the best movie review I've ever read. But he's way off track in his take on "World Trade Center." He lets slip his anti-Bush administration biases, attacking the film's tie-in of the September 11 attacks to the war in Iraq (he says the purported link between 9/11 and Saddam's Iraq is "the big lie," though there's much evidence that shows Saddam's various acitivities in support of Mideast terrorism). Turan needs to occasionally replace his critic's clothing with the garb of the average movie-goer -- the man-on-the-street reviews of this film, seen in the local news coverage of the film's opening, provide a much more apt encapsulation of "World Trade Center's" power and patriotism.

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