Author Topic: Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center  (Read 3589 times)

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Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center
« on: January 20, 2007, 10:27:36 PM »
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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.


The details

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.


Post Script

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.

Alexandro

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Re: Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center
« Reply #1 on: January 22, 2007, 08:39:51 PM »
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I think Oliver Stone more than caved in just a bit. Just the Michael Peña flashbacks are enough to realize the lows to which a to that point always daring filmmaker subjected to in order to keep his position in the industry. I don't really hold it against him, he's done more than enough to prove his value as an artist and such is life, but the raves and forgivness of critics towards this caricature annoys me. If Spielberg had made the exact same movie, he would have been crucified by critics.

I have to say something about United 93 that I kinda said before but I don't think I was very clear on it. I just saw it on dvd again a couple of days ago and I gotta disagree with the majority. I don't think the aim of United 93 is to recreate in a "realistic" way the events of that day. After all, film is fiction no matter how you present it. And if realism were the pure aim, why would he use music, the most emotionally manipulative resource cinema has? Someone in the other thread defined United 93's approach as clinical. And I think that's more like it. More appropiate. The attention to detail and methods is made in a clinical way. And there's a reason for it. What does this film shows you? Why is the emphasis on the procedures and the slowness of people getting on board an airplane, people on a tower control reacting to the events, the terrorists preparing and then waiting? My opinion is that Greengrass is traying to make you look at how the technological and security advances create the ilusion of safety and turn people into easy targets. There's a lot of attention paid to how taking in airplane is, by now, or at least by then, more like a fun ride than actually getting up in the air at thousends of feet height. Getting in a plane is "what food am I goint to eat? what movie are they gonna show me?". Passing gates and secure posts at the airports slowly gets you in a state of submission, you surrender yourself and think that you're secure and that you're in these people hands. We all have so much trust in our advances that, when something like that happened, it took them quite a while to take any kind of signitifcant action. The general reaction was "a hijack? no way!!" and stuff like that. To me, the film's value lies in that perception rather that in the realism, however admirably and well shot it was. And I think that, in time, this aspect of the movie will become the focus of it's attention.

Gold Trumpet

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Re: Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center
« Reply #2 on: January 22, 2007, 09:46:18 PM »
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I'm glad you were able to read this review and bring the discussion over here. I'll start with the United 93 discussion:

The attention to detail and methods is made in a clinical way. And there's a reason for it. What does this film shows you? Why is the emphasis on the procedures and the slowness of people getting on board an airplane, people on a tower control reacting to the events, the terrorists preparing and then waiting? My opinion is that Greengrass is traying to make you look at how the technological and security advances create the ilusion of safety and turn people into easy targets. There's a lot of attention paid to how taking in airplane is, by now, or at least by then, more like a fun ride than actually getting up in the air at thousends of feet height. Getting in a plane is "what food am I goint to eat? what movie are they gonna show me?". Passing gates and secure posts at the airports slowly gets you in a state of submission, you surrender yourself and think that you're secure and that you're in these people hands. We all have so much trust in our advances that, when something like that happened, it took them quite a while to take any kind of signitifcant action. The general reaction was "a hijack? no way!!" and stuff like that. To me, the film's value lies in that perception rather that in the realism, however admirably and well shot it was. And I think that, in time, this aspect of the movie will become the focus of it's attention.

See, I don't know what great value comes from that perception that should define United 93 to be the great 9/11 film it is being acclaimed as. I really don't disagree with you. It is one way of describing the film by the way it is able to be shocking and memorable. The problem is that the fear and destruction of coziness you describe is not unique to the climate of the world that we live in today. It's been there as long as terrorists knew that overtaking planes was effective. There is no greater comment. So maybe we agree.

For everyone else, I'd like to remind them of Dr. Strangelove. That film was also a narrow focus of a situation heading to total disaster. It didn't try to mix other stories to give the story a greater arch that would make it more rounded. The film was dedicated to the tone it had struck at the beginning and was unapologetic for how the rest of it was. Very much what United 93 also did. The reason Dr. Strangelove is the work of genius and United 93 is a dud is because Dr. Strangelove had a perfect conception of how make art of the cold war. It showed insane generals who were heroes in WW2 trying to argue military decision making in a nuclear age. They were bombastic and focused on the narrow strategy of trying to destroy the enemy without realizing the nuclear age now meant that global war of WW2 was not extinct. Utilizing the nuclear weapon at all meant catastrophre for all. But, the film was done as satire. People believed the characterizations were buffooned so the filmmakers would not retrieve harsh reprisals for the viewpoints in the film. The great thing is that the characterizations were later found to be accurate. The Cuban Missile Crisis had generals involved who could have been out of Dr. Strangelove with their ridiculousness. Curtis LeMay, as one example.

Dr. Strangelove is relevant filmmaking for its subject. United 93 is a general piece of work chalked up with details of what happened to give everyone the illusion it is about 9/11. I agree the focus of the film is likely clinical. Many filmmakers before have been structuralists in finding how changing tone and focus can take a film goer out of their comfort zone when watching a film. Many 'realist' attempts have geared to break the barriers of casual filmgoing in all different ways. United 93 does that, but so what? It adds nothing new but that taking on a very real and devastating subject can elicit a more difficult time of watching a film.


On World Trade Center:

In many ways, I do believe Stone could have done much more. I respect the film, but I never fully liked it. My review attacks the melodramatic characterization. My point in the other thread is that Stone is not simply doing a commercial film. He really is trying his best to make a drama that is relevant to his life. When everyone cheered Woody Allen for taking on genre the way he did in Match Point, they thought he was doing something relevant. He wasn't at all. The film was barely personal for him and just showed his interest in other genres. When Oliver Stone made World Trade Center, he was trying to dig at the very essence of the good he saw in people on 9/11. When he illustrated Christian ideas and symbols, he was digging at his older beliefs. He wasn't just a Catholic before he became a free thinker, but a Catholic school teacher as well. He's done countless interviews to show his disdain for Christianity, but World Trade Center was a great step to show the ways he is tied to Christianity.

You're describing the film commercially like it short cuts good narrative in favor of easy ways to get sympathy out of the viewer. In many ways, I agree. I just want to make it clear that I do think Stone was trying to make a personal film out of ideas he not only had about 9/11, but that he also felt. He never did have to focus on the Christian hallmarks the way he did in this movie. But he still did and its meaningful.

Alexandro

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Re: Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center
« Reply #3 on: January 24, 2007, 02:51:42 PM »
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UNITED 93
I think it is a great film. I don't know about it being a great "9/11" film, but a great film it is just because of the sum of it's parts. And for all the detached and clinical approach, it's very powerfull emotionally and I don't think is only due to the context of the story. If that was the case, then WTC would also be a hugely emotionaly powerfull movie, and at least on my view, doesn't come anywhere closer to 93 in those terms. But I'll leave it at that.

WTC
The "Jesus" bit in that movie made me cringe. The only way I can understand that moment in the film is thinking that the guy in real life claimed to see JesusChrist and Stone followed that to the ultimate consequences, being faithfull to the character´s experience rather than do his usual little number of passing everything through his cynicism filter, and only in that way could I make it have some sense. And that's what I hope it is. I don't buy your theory of him going back to his catholic teaching roots. The scene in Platton you describe has a symbolic meaning, and a very powerfull, by putting a soldier in the place of Christ. It is a radical image, and a rebel one too in a sense. And it works on different levels. In WTC, the ugliness of the scene (because it is pretty ugly to look at) is only surpassed by the thought that it was yet another move by the producers, studios, Stone or whoever, of aiming this film at the same kind of conservative audience that made the success of The Passion of the Christ and that prefer to say "I support our troops" than to protest for the american reasons to go to war later.

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Re: Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center
« Reply #4 on: January 24, 2007, 04:18:49 PM »
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The "Jesus" bit in that movie made me cringe. The only way I can understand that moment in the film is thinking that the guy in real life claimed to see Jesus Christ and Stone followed that to the ultimate consequences, being faithfull to the character´s experience rather than do his usual little number of passing everything through his cynicism filter, and only in that way could I make it have some sense. And that's what I hope it is. I don't buy your theory of him going back to his catholic teaching roots.

1.) In relation to the character witnessing Jesus, like I said, Stone did not have to be a literalist. He could have edited that bit or just had the character reference it without also visualizing it. People would have thought it less a scene about Christ than the omission of someone near death.

2.) As to his catholic roots, there is more evidence in the film. When Nicolas Cage's character is being lifted out of the rubble, one shot shows him being lifted out of a tomb. Cement walls surround him as the camera moves up which acts as his body going up. Stone is symbolizing a ressurection for this character of going from death to life. Plus, if you relate that to the story of the businessman who walks out of his job to help find survivors, the filmmaking suggests the angelic in his actions. He speaks very proudly of his duty and acts with a detached heroism upon reaching ground zero where he acts indifferent toward others and looks to his greater duty. Then the filmmaking pronounces his entrance as a lone savior and films him in a mystical light. the biblical interpretation could say he was an angel rescuing Cage and bringing him back to life.

In WTC, the ugliness of the scene (because it is pretty ugly to look at) is only surpassed by the thought that it was yet another move by the producers, studios, Stone or whoever, of aiming this film at the same kind of conservative audience that made the success of The Passion of the Christ and that prefer to say "I support our troops" than to protest for the american reasons to go to war later.

Stone says he was committed to making a film that was about the feeling in 2001. When faced with the criticisms that the tone seems too cutesy and propagandic, he said 2006 is a very different time. There was no idea in 2001 to support the troops or make endorsements for controversial actions. The country was united. If anything is to criticize, it isn't the tone. This film would not be better with a cynical tone. It would be better with improved writing. I think Stone (not just producers) made the choice to carry the tone of the film like this. And I don't think he was just caving in.

Alexandro

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Re: Notes on Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center
« Reply #5 on: January 26, 2007, 10:38:44 AM »
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Yeah, the bussinesman made me cringe too. More than angelic, he strucked me as robotic. In fact, if I had took that character seriously, he'd probably scare me.

I understand the reasons Stone gives for the general uncritical approach to this story, and I dont think that cynicism would be the right approach either. Cynicism in the context of what in general we agree of being a cynic approach, but the film sapiness is, to me, quite cynical. If I were american, and someone would tell me that WTC is "patriotic" and that it portrays "the feeling" of that day, I would feel insulted. But maybe that's just me.

 

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