Just a Movie
Watching Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.

By Peter Suderman

The problem with World Trade Center is that it is just a movie, a tasteful, bland, platitudinous movie — not particularly bad, but not particularly good, either. But of course, it could never be seen as just a movie. For it is a 9/11 movie, one that depicts, with some accuracy, the most harrowing day for America in recent history, giving star treatment to the real-life survivors and heroes of that day. What’s more, it is a 9/11 movie made by divisive left-wing conspiracy-monger Oliver Stone, a filmmaker whose work often seems designed to provoke political conservatives, if not outright attack them.  


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Just shy of five years past 9/11, it would be impossible to completely disentangle the film from the previous political outbursts of its director or our all-too fresh memories of the tragic events it portrays. For even the most distant observers, the emotional wounds created by 9/11 are still tender, and any viewing of this film will necessarily be tinted by personal feeling. The question, then, becomes how much to let these dredged up emotions color one’s view of the movie. For World Trade Center is an unastounding film about our most astounding day, and how one reacts to it will depend on whether one sees it as cinema or as tribute.

World Trade Center is a familiar tale of survival, of hope lost and gained, and of human decency. It tells the true story of the rescue of two Port Authority police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jemeno (Michael Pena), who were buried in the rubble of the towers. All of the expected true-story beats are there. The men’s frustrated families wait anxiously for news, crying at one moment, arguing the next. While trapped, the two men banter with desperate frivolity and recite mundane details of family life which take on new meaning due to their circumstances. When they are rescued, it is by retired Marine Dave Karnes who, upon seeing the attacks, is moved to don his old military gear and head for the rubble.

Stone’s handling of this rather sensitive material is steady and unfailingly competent, but not one iota better. Despite World Trade Center’s monumental subject matter, Stone gives us by-the-numbers handling of by-the-numbers material. We feel for the characters’ families; we root to see McLoughlin and Jemeno rescued; we are duly inspired by the courage of Karnes. But these are the stock emotions of ordinary feel-good movies, and while Stone executes them better than most, the comfortable clichés of packaged Hollywood feeling seem an ill-fit for a day as overwhelming as 9/11.  

Where previous Stone films had always examined their subjects in both close-up and panorama, the director keeps World Trade Center tightly trained on a relatively small cast of characters and incidents. Seen through this narrow lens, the events of 9/11 lose much of their emergency and enormity. His movie all but ignores political and societal ramifications of that day, opting instead for small-scale personal triumph. Stone’s individualized viewpoint reduces the still-rumbling worldwide shock of 9/11 to a movie-of-the-week sized ordeal.  

This is exactly the opposite tack from the one taken by this year’s earlier 9/11 film, United 93. That film’s exactingly realistic depiction took a day that played like a movie and made it hauntingly, painfully real. World Trade Center simply extracts the most movie-like elements from the 9/11 file and polishes them up with some big-screen gloss. When United 93 came out, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen. World Trade Center, for all the novelty of its timely delivery, is exactly like everything we’ve seen already.

Still, if the film hovers in well-known territory for moviegoers, it represents something new for the usually boundary-pushing Stone. Always a magnet for controversy, the director’s oeuvre is a mix of exploitation and paranoid historical revisionism. But he was always animated by passion for a personal cause, whether it was exposing the perceived cruelty of Vietnam commanders or the alleged conspiracy behind Kennedy’s assassination, and it was this passion that drove his films. In World Trade Center, though, he has nothing to fight for, no personal stake in the story. In place of nutty left-wing conspiracies, then, Stone supplies nice-sounding platitudes.

One gets the sense that this is Stone’s forced penance for the epic failure of his last film, Alexander. After that mammoth-budgeted movie’s dismal critical reception and worse box-office return, Stone became a Hollywood pariah. It appears, however, that someone saw this as a marketing opportunity. Why not hire Stone, a filmmaker whose newly reduced stature would make him easily controllable, and get the benefits of controversy he’d inevitably bring — but without the difficulties associated with actually making a controversial movie? The announcement of the divisive director would spark early buzz which would be followed by “surprise” praise as his usual detractors discovered that, for once, he’d managed to make a movie not soaked in paranoid leftwing lunacy. It’s the perfect Oliver Stone conspiracy, with both Stone and the public as marks.

Seen in this light, it’s even more tempting to regard World Trade Center as, at best, a merely adequate film memorable only for its subject matter. But that subject matter, and our proximity to it, doesn’t lend itself to such easy dismissal, because for once, the platitudes and clichés of the silver screen cannot be viewed as merely platitudes and clichés. Karnes, the ex-Marine who rescued McLoughlin and Jimeno, really did engage in an extraordinary act of bravery. McLoughlin and Jimeno really were trapped under tons of fire-laced rubble, talking about anything and everything just to stay alive. And there can be no doubt that their families really went through hell worrying about them. The film’s story may be conventional, but it has the virtue of being undeniably true.

It is the film’s sincere adherence to truth that makes it complicated. Regardless of its cinematic craftsmanship, the subject matter alone stirs up the lingering 9/11 sentiments that we all still harbor. How one feels while watching this movie is not merely a product of what one sees on screen; instead, it is a swirling mix of feelings and memories about both the movie and the terribly real events of which it reminds us.

This year’s 9/11 movies, like 9/11 itself, are unique, both for their topic and for their timeliness. Perhaps their closest cinematic kin, however, is Steven Spielberg’s World War II epic, Saving Private Ryan. That film featured a grueling, hyper-real reenactment of the carnage of D-Day, but it opened and closed with an emotional tribute to World War II soldiers set in a present-day cemetery. As with United 93, some found the D-Day sequence too stomach-churning, but many praised it for its accuracy and power. Similarly, many criticized Ryan’s prologue and epilogue for being too sentimental, but for some — especially veterans and their families — these were the sequences that affected them most. Those scenes, for all their formulaic feeling, gained their power by paying honest tribute to those that fought and died in the service of America.

In that sense, World Trade Center works, not so much as excellent cinematic craft, but as a celebration of the individual heroism and goodness poured forth on 9/11 and the days following. It only brushes against the day’s larger impact, but it tells its specific story of loss, hope, and recovery reasonably well. What this means, though is that despite its billing, it does not quite succeed as a cinematic monument, and it captures little of the earth-shattering impact of 9/11. It may be best, then, to accept that its limited scope means that it is not a 9/11 movie, with all the emotion, the political consequence, and the cultural upheaval that label implies. No, World Trade Center is not a 9/11 movie. It is just a movie.


 — Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He blogs on film and culture at www.alarm-alarm.com.

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