Saturday, September 30, 2006

Review - World Trade Centre

I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who winced when they heard Oliver Stone was about to make a film based on the terrible events which occurred on September 11th 2001. He has made many films about iconic moments in American history, but surely a director who is as confrontational, unpredictable and iconoclastic as he would be the last filmmaker you’d trust with a subject that is still an open wound five years after the event? Stone is also one of cinema’s most inconsistent filmmakers, frequently capable of brilliance but rarely managing to produce a coherent film; and his last effort - Alexander - was the biggest critical and commercial flop of his career. This year has already seen Paul Greengrass’s dignified and almost universally acclaimed United 93, but what on earth would happen when Oliver Stone took on 9/11?

Stone’s World Trade Centre is the inspiring true story of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two New York Port Authority police officers who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the towers collapsed, and they somehow lived to tell the tale. It’s an extraordinary story of courage on a day when New Yorkers from all walks of life went above and beyond to help strangers in need, and one wonders if Stone has the requisite sensitivity and subtlety to tell such a story. It’s hard to say, because World Trade Centre doesn’t feel like it was directed by Oliver Stone at all.

Clearly Stone is aware that he is treading on very thin ice when dealing with 9/11, and this knowledge appears to have caused this normally bullish director to retreat into his shell and create the kind of conventional, meek and sentimental film I never thought he’d produce. World Trade Centre is an old-fashioned disaster movie which celebrates the heroism of McLoughlin and Jimeno while carefully ignoring any causes, consequences or political impact of 9/11 (aside from one ill-advised point, which we’ll get to later). But in trying so hard to make a film which will please everyone, Stone has made a desperately dull and insipid movie which fails to do justice to the heroes at its core.

This is a shame, because World Trade Centre starts brilliantly. The opening half-hour is notable for its understated sense of normality, as Stone shows McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), Jimeno (Michael Peña) and various other officers gearing up for another average day. None of them could have had any idea of the storm they were about to walk into, and these early scenes manage the considerable task of taking us back to that pre-9/11 time when everything was just fine. After their roll-call, assignments and standard locker room banter, the cops head out onto the streets and a few minutes later their world changes forever. We don’t see the plane collide with the tower, just a fleeting shadow as it passes overhead, and we experience the low rumble as it hits the target. The cops are all called back to base and they stand around television sets as we all did that day - open-mouthed, speculating, hardly believing what they see.

McLoughlin leads a group of men down to the towers to take part in the rescue and evacuation process, and what follows is simply stunning filmmaking. With breathtaking authenticity, Stone has recreated the scene around the World Trade Centre on an enormous scale. The brilliant production design and seamless visual effects present us with a scene which is probably the closest we’ll ever get to knowing what it was like to be right there on 9/11. The sky is filled with dust, paper and smoke, bloodied survivors stagger away from the chaos, and as the small group of police officers approach their faces are filled with awe and terror. McLoughlin takes a couple of men on a search and rescue mission, but as they make their way across the concourse between the two buildings the first tower collapses, burying them under tons of rubble.

It’s about this point that World Trade Centre falls apart completely. With its two leading characters immobile, and with us already knowing the outcome, the film’s narrative momentum stops dead after the first half an hour. Debutant screenwriter Andrea Berloff blatantly struggles to work her way around this troublesome detail, and the tricks she resorts to are staggeringly banal. McLoughlin and Jimeno chat to each other, hoping to keep both themselves and each other alive, but the words Berloff puts into their mouths are mostly of the “tell my wife I love her/don’t you die on me” variety, the kind of stuff Hollywood disaster movies have been engaging in for decades. The actors do what they can in this difficult situation and Cage, unable to utilise the mannerisms which often afflict his performances, gives a heartfelt and gritty display which is one of his most effective pieces of acting in years. Peña is a likeable presence and he makes the most of his more expressive role; but neither actor can make this dialogue or their thinly-sketched characters come to life, and Stone can’t do anything fresh or interesting with these rote scenes.

McLoughlin and Jimeno spend much of their time underground having soft-focus flashbacks of their wives Donna (Maria Bello) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the ladies’ frantic worrying as they wait for news of their husbands’ fate gives Stone the chance to expand his film beyond the confines of Ground Zero. Unfortunately, neither woman can really give World Trade Centre the emotional depth it so badly needs. Again, it’s not the actors’ fault - the reliable Bello is exceptional once more and Gyllenhaal is good despite being hamstrung by a badly-written character - but Berloff’s script here is once more low on characterisation while high on cheap emotional manipulation, and Stone’s unfocused direction drifts between Donna, Allison and their husbands without letting any strand of the film build up a head of steam.

Admittedly, there are times when World Trade Centre stirs the emotions and brings a lump to the throat, but I found that those times were linked more to the film evoking my own memories of 9/11 rather than Stone effectively engaging us in this story. The tremendous opening sequence is powerful precisely because it is such a vivid re-enactment of what we all saw on that day - it’s almost a Pavlovian reaction which causes these images to tug at the heartstrings. The most powerful moment in United 93 for me was simply the shot of the second plane hitting the tower, and the sight all those people watching stunned and impotent, as we all were that day. The reality of 9/11 is something so powerful no drama can really hope to match it, and certainly not when it is given the tacky treatment Stone indulges in here.

It’s strange to see Oliver Stone dealing with the most important event of the past decade and not engaging in any political commentary at all, and perhaps it’s a blessing that we aren’t getting the usual paranoid, ranting conspiracy theories which would be most inappropriate here. But halfway through the film we meet Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon, storming around the place like a wild-eyed serial killer), an ex-US Marine who watches the events unfold on TV and then decides he is needed at the scene to do what he can. “I don’t know if you know this” he tells his co-workers as soon as he sees what’s happening “but we’re at war”, and after he has helped rescue Jimeno from the wreckage he says “they’re going to need some good men out there to avenge this”. We are then told that Karnes re-enlisted in the Marines and subsequently served two tours of duty in Iraq, and this seems a strange aspect to suddenly introduce into the film. One of the saddest things about 9/11 is the way the Bush administration has shamelessly hijacked the incident to justify their war in Iraq, and after Stone has been so carefully apolitical in his direction of World Trade Centre it seems an odd, and somewhat crass move to draw this direct link between 9/11 and the war so unnecessarily.

But I suppose that sums up the kind of muddle this film is. There are moments when you can see the old Stone pulling off the visceral and stylish pieces of filmmaking he’s capable of, but otherwise this unspeakably bland film could have been directed by any hack in Hollywood. Oliver Stone has made worse films than World Trade Centre, he has made some which are downright unwatchable, but I don’t think he has ever made one as uninteresting or anonymous. His attempt to make a mainstream, crowd-pleasing picture has seen him completely surrender his artistic sensibilities to produce a film unworthy of the events it tries to honour. I suppose you could forgive an American filmmaker if he used a 9/11 film for a spot of flag-waving, but who could have guessed Oliver Stone’s flag would be white?