Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center
The general (plus biographical)
Oliver Stone has created a memorial for 9/11. After months of speculation that the director would politicize the event of our time, the sobering truth is that his new film is instead endeared to the everyman of those attacks. World Trade Center is a return to grace for Stone who - back in 1987 - won the academy award for his personal experiences in Vietnam with Platoon (1986). World Trade Center documents the story of two Port Authority Officers who were trapped in the rubble of Trade Towers once they collapsed. The film cares very little about the questions that 9/11 has asked; rather, it attempts to dig at the unexpected self that so many found that day.
World Trade Center is a history lesson for Oliver Stone. When Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and even JFK (1991) were made, they were made out of his experience of the Vietnam War. The first two films were direct biographical accounts from Vietnam. JFK was philosophical of the fact that the war never would have been if Kennedy wasn't assassinated by the powers for war in Washington. The majority of the films Stone has made have been made out of conviction. World Trade Center digs at one of his oldest convictions.
Before he was a filmmaker, he was a Catholic school teacher. Stone later renounced the faith but dug at signs of Christ in the autobiographical Platoon. The shot of William Defoe reaching his hands up toward the sky before his death is dramatized as martyrdom for all that was given up by the men who went through that war. Signs of Christendom also run throughout World Trade Center. Stone's former belief, Catholicism, is the only major Christian religion that can make saints out of regular individuals. Not only does Catholicism enshrine individual human beings but, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in his essays and plays, it makes saints kneel before those who have performed generous acts of goodwill. In WTC, it is Oliver Stone, the non-believer, who is kneeling for all the men and women who showed goodwill on September 11th. Many people that day found a courage that was unexpected; it could be asked whether Oliver Stone too hasn't rediscovered a portion of his old faith.
The major concern with World Trade Center is how personal the film allows itself to be. When Stone made Platoon in 1986, the controversy of Vietnam was still existent but the war was over a decade old. Stone was also telling his own story and operating under the knowledge that he could never explain the war. Many films about Vietnam had already tried. The attacks of the September 11th are only five years old and a very fresh topic in the movie world. Stone knew the film would be scrutinized from every possible side for what position it took on the attacks, and he does play to appease those who might see any political ideology. In the movie, characters assess the importance of bravery and courage and offer large talk that tries to wrap itself protectively around the attacks. This distances the film from the personal experience it tries to be.
Though this is still a rewarding experience for an artist who continues to grow, the expectations, in the end, were too large. The on-going controversy of 9/11 asks that all those who insist on giving comment be wary of the consequences. Oliver Stone, perhaps still bruised by the failure of Alexander (2004), does seem ultimately to have caved in a little bit.
Unlike any Oliver Stone film before, World Trade Center has an inkling of melodrama. The two officers trapped in the rubble deal with the situation of life or death while their families deal with the possibility of losing a family member. Because the portraits extend only to the hours after the attack, the depth of the emotions are limited, since the characters are only dealing with the shock and numb of the event. The emotions overlap because all the stories involve similar situations; they then become sentimentalized because they deal with our most intrinsic fears and worries. The panic of potentially losing your wife or husband has a place of depth. It's just that real-time coverage of it has the potential to cross over into dramatics that is redundant.
The film aches to find depth in the story of the two couples. Nicholas Cage plays a weathered police sergeant who knows he always has to be strong to keep his department going. Maria Bello has a similar façade to her life in order to keep their household going. Their story develops to tear away outer shells and reveal the depths of how much they mean to each other. Scenes of better times play through Nicolas Cage's brain. The sense of grief hits Cage when he realizes all that will now be lost with this unlivable situation. He comes to breaking point when he realizes the greater thing he has to fight for to survive.
While Cage's story has some semblance of a self-contained story, Michael Pena's is another matter. He is the other officer trapped in the rubble and has a brand new family to worry about. The only story arc this young couple has (the wife being played by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is who should name their soon-to-be-born daughter. No scene of their interacting before the attack rises above a cliché of happiness and an ideal relationship. The scenes mainly show simply the couple together in bed. A few years ago, In America (2003) gained critical success even though it contained scarcely a scene that rose above the equivalent of such home-movie dramatics. The same superficiality of emotion plays out here.
The emotional center of World Trade Center runs counter to the other film released this year about the events of 9/11, United 93 (2006). Without a doubt, United 93 is an intense experience. The feeling of deep mortality plagues our perception of all its characters, and the hyperbolic filmmaking only charges the ride to be more intense. The problem though is that the hyperbolic filmmaking is the only thing that stands out in that film; the rest is an experiment in realism that gives little comment about that day, and rests the story upon no higher meaning. The rationalization for the hyperbolic filmmaking is that it raises the mundane story above its limitations to become a greater experience. It does become a more memorable experience, but as the critic Parker Tyler once said, "It's not how you film a shot that matters, but what shot you film."
Stone here takes a hands-on approach to the filmmaking. The distance of the camera is never pronounced with an aesthetic distance. New scenes and locations get very little introduction. The camera quickly goes straight into the foreground action and maintains a tight focus on the faces of the characters. Even during a scene involving many characters, the camera barely resides in the background for coverage. The main consistent stylistic note is this focus on the faces. The camera also improvises with the action. Stone has been known to make subdued films, like Nixon (1995) and Heaven and Earth (1993). The difference is that those films have a greater focus on composition. World Trade Center, with its method of constant shifting from hand-held to steadicam, could be interpreted as Stone simply using a combination of all his filmmaking skills. The themes of the film, however, suggest a larger reasoning.
The career of Ingmar Bergman should be noted here. When he was doing work in the late 50s, he was working with subjects and styles that he would lose by the 60s, when his chamber dramas and the subject of the 'absence of God' took over. In Wild Strawberries (1957) and The Seventh Seal (1957), Bergman was a filmmaker developing his skills for the camera focusing on the face. He also was using religious symbolism. Many hold to the belief that Bergman was merely transitioning in his style during this period, and perhaps this is true, but Wild Strawberries is also filmed with a momentum and a successful focus on action. It brings a punch to the major symbolic scenes in the film. Because the film is not as formal as other Bergman works, the symbolic moments are able to ring true and have a deeper connection to the characters. The film is highly connected to the psyche of the protagonist.
World Trade Center adopts a similar loose style. The film plays out as an adaptation of real events but then will utilize symbolism that comes out of nowhere. Certain moments are overt (the vision of Christ) and others aren't (Cage being lifted out of the rubble which transcends to a tomb). Both moments are rooted in theme and story. This new style is a small feather in the cap in the ever expanding filmic capabilities of Oliver Stone, but an achievement nonetheless.
The largest accomplishment in the filmmaking here comes in a unique area. In World Trade Center, there are two parts that act as indirect prologues and epilogues. After Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena are introduced, then so is New York City. Stone dedicates a series of stills that range from shots of unrecognizable streets at dusk to larger shots of recognizable skyscrapers and then finally shots of New York City as a whole. The epilogue features similar shots but this time it is of New York City filled with the debris from 9/11. All the stills are varied but all are excellent.
The beginning stills, of unrecognizable streets, play with color objectives. In 1964, Michelangelo Antonioni professed in an interview that color would help reveal the beauty in things such as factories and barren urban landscapes. Filmmaking in color gives Stone that element necessary to separate his work from virtually all past pictorials of New York City. Certain stills focus on buildings that have unique colors for the city, then on streets that off set-the colors of street lights. It goes beyond the postcard image of New York and then adds a new depth that separates itself from the familiar great black-and-white photography of New York in the early twentieth century. The stills then go to shots of the greater New York City that displays an excellent composition and attains the beauty and size of New York all in one. The depth these stills go to are interesting in themselves. They're structured so eloquently that it is hard to tie them directly to the story of the film itself. They also go on for long enough that one can appreciate that they do exist in the real world. The feeling is that Stone wanted to create a pictorial composite of New York City throughout the day.
A major drought in the film has to do with acting. Ordinarily, Stone is stellar in casting and digging great performances out of capable actors. Michael Douglas routinely cites his performance in Wall Street (1987) as his best work and remarks that Stone has a way of getting actors to perform at their peak level. Actors in general usually walk away from an Oliver Stone set with utmost regard for their experience. Every actor involved in Alexander (2004) claimed their experience was near life-changing. Actors came out of World Trade Center with a similar feeling. The intensity of a Stone set, matched with the emotional heights that World Trade Center was aiming for, certainly must have meant for a cathartic experience. The acting in this film, however, doesn't meet that ambition. First off, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello are only moderate talents. Both fill their roles with the right accents, but don't lift their performances above adequate work; neither performance ever feels personal. They are predictably sentimental. Michael Pena, on the other hand, does manage to find a perfect pitch to his character. He is the stand-out actor of the group. The big disappointment comes in Nicholas Cage. He has only truly proven himself in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and here works with little conviction in his role. His face tries to be interesting but he has been doing Hollywood vehicles for too long to be able to give his performance the subtlety it needs.
There are many regrets to World Trade Center. Oliver Stone, a first-class director, does not direct above the performances and the melodramatic material. He does, however, prove that a failure in his hands still has a lot to be thankful for. Great directors are able to do this. Ingmar Bergman, between his shifts of style and focus, averaged a major hit once every nine years: films that were only European successes, local successes or failures dominated the years in between. In retrospect, Bergman has nothing to prove: the extent of his filmography in achievement and depth speak above the bumps in his career. There is a feeling that Stone may not be in the same class as Bergman, yet he also has nothing left to prove. He is the greatest American filmmaker working now.
Having first watched the film months ago, I recently re-visited it when it was released on DVD. The period of time between allowed for much to happen. First, Oliver Stone – a very thoughtful filmmaker – clarified his feelings on the subject of 9/11 and said that World Trade Center would not be the only film he was going to do. This is great news. While Stone didn’t want to say this before the release of World Trade Center so the film could be released unaffected by criticism of the director’s beliefs, that same secret also allowed for many of his fans to assume the depths of his concern in recent US history was only a human story from our greatest disaster. This didn’t ultimately affect my judgment of the film, but it gave me hope for Stone’s concerns and future.