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Virtual Catastrophe | The Nation

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Virtual Catastrophe

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Because Karnes functions in the picture as the indispensable man, without whose martial spirit the cops would have died, World Trade Center leads inexorably to his demand for reprisal, if not against Al Qaeda (which is not named in the film) then against Iraq (which is). In the movies, momentum is destiny; and so, by its very structure, World Trade Center endorses Karnes's call for revenge. The producers seem to assume this is what the American public wants to hear; and Stone, as contract director, has agreed to sound the cry, much as Aurenche and Bost were willing to provide their audience with a story about a priest. But at the same time, through his characterization of Karnes, Stone deliberately strikes a series of wrong notes--like the clunkers that Aurenche and Bost tossed into Diary of a Country Priest--so that he sours the demand for an all-out "war on terror."

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Some fans of World Trade Center might interpret this dissonance as ambiguity or nuance. But since the merest traces of these elements have been detected in Stone's previous films, I think the characterization of Karnes (which even supporters of the film have found weird) is more a matter of the director's attempt to have things both ways, or of practicing what Truffaut called "the art of putting one over." I'm not surprised that the right-wing blowhards who admire the film--Cal Thomas, for example--have been oblivious to the effect. What's astonishing is that so many others have accepted the pretense that the film is nonpolitical. The consensus, as of this writing, is that World Trade Center avoids big issues (as if that would be possible) and focuses instead on an intimate human drama.

Yet the intimate scenes are consistently the least dramatic. You may excuse, though you probably will not believe, the pastel-tinged, softly focused images of domestic bliss between John and Donna, William and Allison--happy pictures of home carpentry and impending childbirth--since these Kodak moments are supposed to be memories, called up by the day's duress. When I'm in a bad spot and fear the worst, my memories of loved ones are more likely to be captioned: "God forgive me, why did I do that?" But, all right, let's allow the McLoughlins and Jimenos to think sweetly of one another on the screen, having suffered so horribly in reality. The question then is how effectively World Trade Center portrays that suffering.

Not so well. Scenes of the wives' endless, dreadful waiting are invariably arranged to point up a single facet of their characters: Donna copes stoically, whereas Allison is ready to erupt. The frame is crowded, with friends and family bustling around each wife; but despite the directorial busyness, actions are always conventional--now someone is snapped at, now someone is hugged--and the dramaturgy static. These scenes have nowhere to go.

Nor are the husbands going anywhere. Once the cops are trapped, Cage and Peña must act from the neck up, whispering and croaking and letting out the intermittent bellow. I cannot imagine any two actors doing more with these scenes. (Nor could other actresses outdo Bello and Gyllenhaal with the material they've been given.) But except for that one loopy vision of Jesus, the incidents with McLoughlin and Jimeno are empty of specificity or surprise. "Stay with me." "Don't fall asleep." "Hey, you remember that movie--" You feel shock and fear whenever there's another boom, followed by a fresh ton of downpouring concrete; but then, you may feel as much for the trapped spelunkers in Neil Marshall's horror movie The Descent.

So if the human part of this intimate human drama is banal, to what are its fans responding? The part that's not intimate. When vehicles stuffed with bulky men careen through the streets, when crowds roil in panic or rescuers shape themselves into a chain, when the characters and camera knock around inside a great sphere of chaos through which disaster may break at any point, then Stone is one of the most compelling filmmakers. He convinces you, as few others could have done, that this was the reality at Ground Zero.

That, I believe, is the larger reason why people ignore the obvious shortcomings of World Trade Center. For the millions of us who did not suffer directly on September 11, Stone's film provides a way to be imaginatively present. It transfers our experience of helplessness onto McLoughlin and Jimeno and then absolves us for having survived, since they did, too. It works this magic, at any rate, for viewers who don't tote up the cost paid in artistic bad faith and political fudging. To sit before the film is to participate in a ritual of solidarity and redemption, to which the flimsiness of two-thirds of the movie is irrelevant. In that sense, the opening text is entirely appropriate. Interpret "these events" to mean "screenings of World Trade Center," and they are indeed reality, not representation.

They also serve, of course, to redeem Oliver Stone.

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