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Terror in close-up

Stone focuses on two heroes' journeys in 'World Trade Center

Published August 4, 2006 at midnight

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Oliver Stone has come close to turning controversy into a personal brand during a career that has spanned more than 25 years. He's the rare Hollywood director whose name can elicit a visceral response — everything from admiration to outrage.

After movies such as JFK (1991) and Nixon (1995), Stone's name became synonymous with conspiratorial zeal. Natural Born Killers (1994) took on the leering prurience of media while doling out groundbreaking levels of violence. Even Platoon, Stone's emotionally devastating 1986 Oscar winner, wasn't controversy-free: Among other things, the movie depicted lethal levels of conflict among U.S. troops.

So the major question hovering around World Trade Center boiled down to: Would Stone use the events of Sept. 11 to advance his political agenda? The surprising answer: Stone has defied expectation. Instead of striving for an epic film, he narrowed the movie's focus and steered clear of politics.

The film, which opens Wednesday, tells the story of Port Authority police officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, who were among the 20 people rescued from the rubble of an unforgettable day. The film's carefully detailed account of events at ground zero branches out only when it shows how the families of each man tried to cope with the unimaginable.

If World Trade Center isn't a typical Stone movie, maybe it's because the project came to him, not the other way around. The late Debra Hill, a producer, initiated it.

"It was a strange situation," the 57-year-old Stone said in a recent phone conversation. "I got a script that already had been researched and written.

"It was very inspiring. A light bulb went off. I never would have thought of making a movie about Sept. 11 this way, by focusing on a microcosm. These guys are strong, and they're heroes to me. Beyond that, it was refreshing to remember that day in a different way.

"There was nothing made-up. I followed the facts. We took 24 hours and made it into two. We did compress, but the story told itself."

Stone understands that audiences may be surprised that he hasn't injected a political viewpoint but thinks that such expectations aren't entirely fair.

"It's a bit of pigeonholing. My films have been all over the place. As long as people like the film, I'm OK with it. I don't want Oliver Stone to get in the way."

A tough subject

Movies about Sept. 11 are a dicey business. When United 93 was released in April, it garnered mostly raves but didn't galvanize national attention while earning just more than $31 million. Many people passed, not wanting to relive the events of Sept. 11, conveyed with harrowing urgency by director Paul Greengrass.

"You can't make anyone go to a movie," said Stone. "But word of mouth is important for a film like this. If a friend mentions World Trade Center as a film that makes you feel something, that's very important.

"United 93 was shot in documentary style. World Trade Center is made in a more traditional Hollywood style. You have a tight emotional connection with four characters (the trapped men and their wives). You get to know them, just like you would in a 1930s movie. And things work out in the end. You know they survive. Only 20 people survived the damn thing. I couldn't make that up."

With so many police and firemen on the scene, it's ironic that the officers were found by an accountant, former Marine and deeply religious Christian from Connecticut. Dave Karnes drove from his Connecticut home and wandered across ground zero on a mission.

"He eventually went back to Iraq," said Stone. "He's a Marine reservist. He went to church (after the attack) and then went down to New York in his uniform. He passed the barricades without permission. In this 16-acre haystack, he found the needle. You couldn't make that up, either."

Re-creating Sept. 11 is no easy task. Stone shot in New York City but constructed World Trade Center interiors in California. Ground zero was a set at the former home of Hughes Aircraft in Playa Vista.

"Everything you see on the TVs that are playing in various scenes is real. The burning of the towers was created by computer. The jumper we showed was created by computer. We did a lot of building in Los Angeles. We built the holes in which the men were trapped. We used computer animation as much as possible, but from a completely subjective point of view.

"We built the concourses in the World Trade Center. That was a nightmare in terms of detail. What we built, we collapsed, and then we added computer animation."

Drama in the rubble

Stone doesn't attempt to show everything. In fact, one of the film's strengths lies in its refusal to reiterate sights we've all seen thousands of times. And he masterfully employs sound to give a sense of what the men, who were trapped in the concourse between buildings 1 and 2, experienced. He adopts a simplified visual approach.

"The movie is a battle between light and dark, and you see it in the hole most brutally. We first go into the building in the light. As the day dwindles and hopes diminish, twilight happens."

The task of sustaining drama in the rubble was made more difficult by the fact that the two men (played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena) were trapped in a tight, dark space.

"Nicolas is a great actor," said Stone. "He's done tremendous things. This is a less flamboyant role for him; he's playing a simple workingman. It was very hard to shoot those underground scenes. The guys can't see each other, there's no eye contact.

"Michael hadn't done much. He was very effective in Crash (in which he played a locksmith). ... He has this Everyman quality that I love."

Family and faith helped keep both men alive. Stone depicts this in flashbacks to McLoughlin's married life and in a vision of Jesus that Jimeno had. We're also given a look at the heart of McLoughlin's marriage when he imagines a conversation with his wife (Maria Bello).

"They talk about their 25 years together," said Stone. "For me, it's an incisive picture of why they stayed together and also what makes him live. There's something metaphysical beyond the physical that got these two men out alive. For Will, it was the image of Jesus and thoughts of his unborn child and wife (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

"When you're in that kind of crush, the pain is overwhelming. When the shock wears off, numbness sets in. The danger of numbness is that you'll fall asleep and never come back. That's where the memory thing came in. Instead of falling asleep, John was brought back to the consciousness of his family. John wasn't motivated by self-pity. He felt like if he died, he'd be letting his family down."

A sense of duty

What motivates men who do the kind of extraordinarily dangerous rescue work we see in the movie?

"A sense of duty," said Stone. "You see it in the military a lot. You see it in police. It often comes from family. It comes through the genes. Men and women are, in a sense, born to serve.

"It's certainly not about the money. It's a fixed-income life. It's about having buddies and camaraderie and, hopefully, generally stable families, which is hard to get in capitalist America, where things are up and down."

OK, a hint of politics, but you won't see it in the movie. On screen, Stone's content to create an ode to people who work hard for their money, something we don't often see in movies.

"That's one of the things I really miss in Hollywood," he said. "It's a shame. The only working people you see in many films are yuppies with too much money. Most people have to struggle more. This is a throwback for me to Platoon. The grunts were the backbone of our country. In Born on the Fourth of July, the masses of people were important. It's good to walk again among ordinary people with tough jobs."

Few who lived through that indelible day will ever forget one thing that grew from tragedy. "The beauty of that day is, we were united. People didn't give in to fear," Stone said.

Can that feeling be recaptured?

"Yeah, if you don't live in fear. If you live in fear, you'll be a slave your whole life. You have to go back to remember that people were brave. A lot of the things that have gone wrong in the five years since — it's because of the echoes of fear. Fear has trapped us in situations that are even more devastating than Sept. 11."

Like?

"Like more terror. More war. More security and, frankly, constitutional breakdowns."

But in World Trade Center, Stone isn't trying to score ideological points. He's re-connecting with the emotions of a moment that's burned into the national consciousness, he says.

"I feel comfortable with the film. It's simple. It's gripping."

Robert Denerstein is the film critic. or 303-892-5424