9/11 movie more glossy heroism than gritty realism

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World Trade Center, 125 minutes, Rating: M
Director: Oliver Stone, Starring: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maria Belo, Maggie Gyllenhaal

Among recent documentaries commemorating the fifth anniversary of September 11, one stood out as particularly harrowing. 9/11—The Falling Man took as its subject one of the most shocking aspects of that dark day—the so-called “jumpers”, who made the impossible choice of leaping more than a hundred storeys to their death, rather than burn alive inside the Twin Towers.

I mention The Falling Man because it makes a fascinating counterpoint to World Trade Center, the first mainstream feature film to turn its eye to that fateful day.

In many ways, The Falling Man is a more manipulative film. During the first 25 minutes, producer/director Henry Singer uses news footage, as well as eyewitness testimony, to reconstruct, in excruciating detail, the sequence of events, from the moment of the first plane’s impact through to the collapse of the buildings.

Stone, on the other hand, takes a subtler approach. He briefly recalls certain iconic images from the media—the blazing towers; bystanders gaping in horror; weary fire-fighters striding undaunted down the road; survivors covered in ash and blood; the decimated shell of the collapsed towers—to prompt viewers to fill in the gaps for themselves, as he limits the film’s perspective to that of its central characters.

Said characters are John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena), part of a police search and rescue contingent who become trapped beneath the rubble when the towers collapse. The real McLoughlin and Jimeno were among 20 survivors ultimately pulled free. Stone’s picture is the inspirational account of their fight for survival, a deserved celebration of the heroism shown by police and emergency services workers on that day, and a portrait of McLoughlin’s and Jimeno’s wives (Belo and Gyllenhaal) and their own emotional ordeal as they await news of their husbands’ fate.

Stone is no slouch, utilising painstakingly re-created sets, masterful special and digital effects, and a script (by Andrea Berloff) based on survivors’ testimony to lend the weight of authenticity. Yet there’s an inescapable feeling that, coming off the back of a commercial flop (Alexander), Stone has made the least confronting, uncontroversial film about 9/11 humanly possible; a flag-waving, heartstring-yanking film that holds the truly horrific at arm’s length, all but ignores the bigger-picture ramifications of 9/11, with the result being that the events are portrayed as a mere disaster movie.

And that is perhaps where the wide dichotomy between World Trade Center and The Falling Man is most obvious. While The Falling Man is at least brave enough to confront the horror of 9/11 with eyes wide open, World Trade Center does little more than glance at it, before searching for a palliative in the form of inspirational heroism. This is a decidedly gutless, “safe” approach that suggests Stone is no longer the uncompromising visionary who gave us Platoon, JFK and Natural Born Killers.



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Existing comments

The falling man is about self censorship. World trade center tells the story of two fire fighters who survived. Many questions can be raised about why hollywood feels the need to make feature films of this tragedy, but one cannot expect Oliver Stone to deliver a "Loose Change" theory on the collapse of the world trade center simply on the basis of Stone's previous and so-called controversial films. These days it seems almost controversial for Oliver Stone not to make a controversial film.
While the film is by no means perfect and there IS a sense of american heroism, the fact is many Americans were indeed brave on that day. Far braver than i have ever had to be so Why NOT tell this side of the story?
Andrew Carter | 03 October 2006

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