Saturday, August 12, 2006

REVIEW: World Trade Center

Perusing the reviews of "World Trade Center" online, it becomes immediately apparent that comparing this film to "United 93" is somehow unavoidable. I'm not sure it's really a useful comparison, but let's get it done with.

What irks me about the comparisons is that they generally presume "United" (a great film) to be automatically superior to "WTC" because of the style it was made in: In other words, "U93's" verite shaky-cam and faux-documentary editing are in and of themselves posessed of more artistic credibility than "WTC's" heightened, more "traditionalyl" cinematic compositions. Forgive me, but I've never quite bought that approach should be regarded with equal or greater values to result when it comes to art, film or otherwise. (And am I really the only person who finds something fishy about the indie/arthouse crowd declaring that the artistically-superior style of filmmaking du-jour is just coincidentally the one that's more within the reach of indie/arthouse filmmakers?) A good movie is a good movie is a good movie. A good glossy, grandly-mounted Big Studio movie is in fact better than a bad "gritty" arthouse movie, and vice-versa. "United 93" is a great film in the style it was mounted, and "World Trade Center" is a great film in the style it was mounted. Bottom line.

The film has also been criticized, both in relation to "U93" and in general, for focusing too narrowly on a single story with a happy ending amid an event that brought forth many more unhappy endings. It's a fair critique, but one that ignores a certain basic reality of telling stories, tragic or otherwise, for a large audience. Dramas based on tragedies, real or fictional, usually connect most powerfully with the general public when there is a "ray of hope" for them to enter through and experience it. Paradoxically, in order to help people experience hopelessness you must first give them some semblance of hope.

The reason, for example, that "Schindler's List" connected with audiences in a way that no Holocaust dramatization had before or since was that it's creators had found a story of heroism amid an unheroic event. By focusing on one man who did the right thing, audiences allowed themselves to experience what happened as everyone else did the wrong thing... because they had a secure alternative to draw replenishment from. The horrors seen in Spielberg's film would be all but unendurable without Schindler on hand as our ideal surrogate, the element of the film through which we reassure ourselves: "I wouldn't be part of the problem in this. I wouldn't be in that 99% of Germans who let this happen. I'd be the good guy. I'd be Schindler." This may, or may not be, naivete and/or a primal psychological defense mechanism, but it's an undeniable aspect of human nature.

For all it's stylistic grit and verite immediacy, "United 93" was working the same basic angle: Amid the story of four planes full of people hijacked and turned into ghastly improvised weaponry, it places it's audience amid the ONE plane where the passengers stood up, beat down the bad guys and prevented the plane from destroying anything else: "I wouldn't have let them beat me. I wouldn't have been helpless. I wouldn't have let them win. I'd rush the cockpit. I'd make them pay. I'd be 'Let's roll!'" And so it is the same with Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center."

Stone's film resembles no other film as much as "Apollo 13," detailing as both do the stranding of brave men amid a disaster and the efforts of their friends and fellows to rescue them. Stone zeroes in on John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (Nicholas Cage and Micheal Pena,) two Port Authority police officers who were among the first responders on 9/11 and found themselves burried by the collapsing buildings. They struggle to keep eachother alive long enough to be rescued, while outside their families await ANY semblance of news and their fellow officers try to figure out what to do and what's actually happening.


Meanwhile, in a paralell story, a former Marine named David Karnes sees the tragedy on TV, excuses himself from work, slips on his old fatigues, drives straight to Ground Zero and just starts looking for people... because he feels God has told him to. History records that it was Karnes who located and led to the rescue of McLoughlin and Jimeno, and the film shows the same.

And yeah, that's really it. Stone has zeroed in on the story that, to him, provides the most "then and there for the regular folks who lived it" view of 9/11. The film travels back and remains right in the first hours of the event, back when we barely knew what had occured, back before every man woman and child had heard of Osama bin Laden.

Some have criticized, with some merit, this particular approach; saying it "santizes" the event. I'd respectfully disagree. There's no sanitation here that I can see, it's merely an accurate recollection. This is about people living through 9/11, not looking back from 5 years later.

Simply stated, it's a sincere and powerful film about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, worth seeing overall as an unusually sudued work from one of our most important filmmakers and worth seeing specifically because it's never too early to start remembering. Reccomended.

FINAL RATING: 8/10