Smoke was still rising from the mass grave of Lower Manhattan when Oliver Stone, sitting onstage at New York's Alice Tully Hall, dignified the attack on the Twin Towers as "the revolt." I was in the audience on that October morning and observed how he took a calculated pause, to signal the thoughtfulness of his words. You'd have thought he was History's own delegate to the panel discussion, sent to remind us that a line divides the oppressors from the oppressed, and that the corpses at the World Trade Center had fallen on the wrong side of it. I saw the satisfaction on Stone's face as he made this judgment, the mingling of piety and callousness.
Years later, when the producers of World Trade Center hired Stone to direct, I said to myself, "Interesting choice."
My thoughts then went back to one of the fundamental texts of film criticism, François Truffaut's essay "A Certain Tendency of French Cinema," and its denunciation of the screenwriters Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost. Though known to be anticlerical, these writers had agreed to adapt the novel Diary of a Country Priest and so figured in the essay as exemplars of bad faith--not so much toward the Catholic Church (which Truffaut admitted he didn't care about) as toward the movies. Having tossed off something that the public presumably wanted, Aurenche and Bost showed their contempt for the job by working in a few covert sneers at the story, and at the people who might watch it.
Would Stone do something similar with World Trade Center? His power of self-expression, I knew, would be constrained by someone else's screenplay (the writer is Andrea Berloff) and by the producers' circumspection. But even the humblest director has room to maneuver, I thought as I presented myself at the theater. As soon as I'd read the opening title, I felt I'd detected Stone's hand.
"These events are based on the actual accounts of the surviving participants." There's no telling for sure who wrote those words, but they strike me as characteristic of Stone, in being windy ("Based on a true story" would have done) and confused. I'd have thought the survivors' experiences were the "events" and the movie about them the "account." But to the author of these lines, the movie evidently is the reality.
I might interpret this claim as a mere artifact of careless writing if not for a similarly befuddling title at the end. After listing the Port Authority police officers who died in the September 11 attacks, this closing text dedicates World Trade Center to them, and to "all those who fought, died and were wounded that day."
What does "fought" mean? Does it incorporate into the dedication Mohamed Atta and his fellow killers--the perpetrators of Stone's "revolt"? (They were, after all, the only people who could be said to have battled at the World Trade Center.) Does it retroactively throw Stone's mantle over the passengers of United Flight 93, who have served as heroes for other filmmakers? Or does the word "fought" testify to a desire to transform the actual heroes of Stone's film--rescue workers--into warriors, just as the narration of this event is magically changed into the real thing?
I think the answer may be found in the strange characterization of one figure, on whom the entire picture hinges. Before this man goes into action, World Trade Center is the story of immobilized victims: Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin and William Jimeno (Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña), trapped in the rubble of Ground Zero, and their wives, Donna and Allison (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal), trapped at home in helpless fear. After this character steps in, World Trade Center becomes a story of heroes, working to rescue McLoughlin and Jimeno and reunite them with their families. The figure who effects this shift in the narrative is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a former Marine who in real life--this is true--left his office in Connecticut, put on his old fatigues, drove to New York and walked on his own authority onto Ground Zero, where he searched into the night for buried survivors and eventually located McLoughlin and Jimeno.
Certain bits of information about Karnes were available to the filmmakers. They knew, for example, that upon seeing a news report about the September 11 attacks, he declared to his office-mates that America was at war. Before setting off for Ground Zero, he sought out his pastor for a blessing; afterward, he re-enlisted in the Marines and served two tours of duty, which took him to Iraq. But it's one thing to know these disparate facts and another to decide how to use them to elicit meaning and a feeling for a man. Various directors might have shaped them any number of ways. Stone does it by flashing before you enormous, stark, repeated images of an altar cross, and by having his actor maintain a 200-yard stare.
Compare this stylized characterization with Stone's portrayals of McLoughlin and Jimeno, who converse naturalistically, pray informally and are even capable of seeing a whimsical vision of Jesus. The victims come across as fully human, whereas their rescuer conveys the grim single-mindedness of an android in a Terminator movie--or maybe of Sergeant Barnes, the killing machine in Stone's Platoon.
A fact-based movie might have retained the transition from victimization to heroism, from burial to resurrection, while treating Karnes differently. It might even have used a different character to bring about the change. As Rebecca Liss has reported in Slate, a volunteer named Chuck Sereika took a far bigger risk at Ground Zero than Karnes, crawling down into the teetering rubble to help dig out McLoughlin and Jimeno. This episode, too, has become a part of the movie, with Frank Whaley taking the role of Sereika. But even though Sereika could offer a redemption narrative of his own--on September 11, he was a recovering addict with a lapsed paramedic's license--the self-doubting hard-luck guy remains an incidental character in World Trade Center. The movie pivots instead on the tough guy in fatigues--the rescuer as warrior--who declares, at the end, "We're gonna need some good men out there to avenge this."