World Trade Center

2 stars


4th October 2006

Are we really ready to see a film about the fall of the Twin Towers? Earlier this year we had Paul Greengrass' United 93, which told the 'forgotten' 9/11 story of the hijacked passenger plane forced to crash land in Pennsylvania; the reason no review was written on this site is because this reviewer found it a thoroughly draining experience, an unforgettable one but not one I'd ever choose to sit through again. Even over the pond, the imagery of September 11th is still fresh in the mind, those indelible moments of destruction seared into the consciousness, the screen burn of a thousand news reports that refuse to fade from memory. So then, is a movie based on the World Trade Center collapse really entirely necessary at this moment in time? The answer, unsurprisingly, is no: while the wounds might have healed over five years passed, it's certainly too soon to think of anyone profiting from 9/11, especially with a half-baked melodrama as elementary as this.

What's even more shocking is that it's directed by Oliver Stone - that's the man with the biggest balls in Hollywood, taking on the events of 9/11. This should be incendiary stuff by rights (Christ knows there's fingers to be pointed at someone) but the result is far from what you might expect - it's a disaster movie with in-built pathos in which anything vaguely political is ignored, with the personal matters of those involved acting as a substitute for story. It could easily pass as a made-for-TV movie, albeit one with higher production values. There are a million stories that could have been told on the topic, but Stone's WTC tale is told from the bottom of the rubble, where Port Authority officers John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Pena) lay trapped under tonnes of twisted metal and brick, hope fading fast, unaware of the true scale of the situation literally collapsing around them. Back home, their pretty wives and adorable children sit glued to the goggle box, wondering "Is Daddy coming home?" (actual line) while the surviving authorities wonder exactly how you go about cleaning up 220 floors worth of fallen American pride.

The story in itself is, without doubt, an inspiring one. McLoughlin and Jimeno underwent an experience that can only be described as hell on earth; pinned beneath a Godless amount of wreckage with no water, little hope and only their deepest, darkest thoughts for company, one can only imagine the strength of character needed to survive. However, the bravery of all those involved is, and always has been, a given, so quite why Stone feels it necessary to drum home this point at every given opportunity is unclear. World Trade Center makes a very obvious play for your heartstrings from the get-go, and is quite shameless in its attempts to pull your heart into the pit of your stomach at every available opportunity. Where United 93 felt alien in regards to form - air-traffic jargon was spewed out unexplained and the mid-flight scenes felt intrusive, like actually being onboard and spiralling towards an inevitably grisly fate - World Trade Center never forgets it is a film, first and foremost, and neither do you.

This is the most terrible disaster most of us will ever see in our lifetime, so why does it feel like everyone is trying so damn hard to make us feel? Speaking on a personal level, I'm a notorious cryer (Forrest Gump, Titanic... even Short Circuit had me in fits of tears) but aside from a dreadful sense of foreboding in the effective opening scenes - the first airplane's huge shadow cast over ground-level buildings is a real gut-buster - the resulting scenes are crafted in a shameless attempt at generating some eye-leakage. When you're struggling to emote over a film about 9/11, something is definitely wrong. Did I need to know about Jimeno's unborn daughter to care about his fate? Did I need to see a soft-focus flashback with McLoughlin's wife and kids in better days to endear me to his cause? The less said about Jimeno's 'moment of clarity' the better; it's an astoundingly heavy-handed religious interlude, featuring the Son of God himself, handing our trapped hero a bottle of water. Jesus apparently drinks Evian. (Possible tagline for the advertising campaign: "Now that's what I call holy water!")

Cage and Pena have a thankless task; act underneath a billion tonnes of stone and still manage to please cynical internet nerds like me who need a minimum of eight car crashes per movie to keep me entertained. Cage in particular has the tough task of portraying a man whose functions are slowly deserting him; energy drained and fortitude flogged, by the end of the movie he's adopted a sleepy, Rain Man-esque drawl and is almost unrecognisable beneath several thick layers of cloying dust and rocks. Pena has the more active role of the two (if you can call banging on a pipe being active) and does give Jimeno an effective rookie quality, a man who puts on a brave front but deep down is absolutely petrified and so far out of his depth he's struggling to keep his head above water. The pair's most affecting scene sees Pena yelling questions at his subdued superior officer, who eventually responds with several ear-splitting screams and an explanation that his "fucking knees have crushed together." Such moments certainly snap you back to attention, but they're few and far between; too often you're forced to listen in to predictable conversations about family. McLoughlin's wife, played here with baffling insincerity by Maria Bello, even makes a ghostly appearance in a dream, lamenting on lost moments and everlasting love. You see what I mean? The fucking Twin Towers just got bombed back to the stone age, and Stone has to resort to dream sequences and hazy flashbacks to muster emotion?

There's no denying that it's an affecting story; it's our generation's 'Kennedy moment' and we all have our opinions on the day in question, and more interestingly, the resulting world fallout (this site is clearly not the place for such weighty discussion, unless someone out there thinks the Transformers are to blame). However, in choosing to ignore the political in favour of the personal, Stone has effectively been neutered. It's not that we don't care for the characters - of course we do - it's that while we're stuck with them under several feet of debris, the rest of the world is slowly falling apart at the seams, a thousand other stories just beginning. The heroics of New York's finest shouldn't - and never would have - gone unrecognised, but you'd hope this brand of weepie would be left to lesser filmmakers. It's the bigger picture, the biggest picture, that's the real interest here, but maybe it'll take a director with bigger balls than Oliver Stone to tackle such a gargantuan task.

More:  Drama  Disaster  Romance
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