Virtual Catastrophe

Virtual Catastrophe

World Trade Center‘s hero is a tough ex-Marine who later re-enlists to fight in Iraq. But his (and Oliver Stone’s) redemption narrative is soured by bad faith.


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.”

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.”

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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