Recount tells positive story of negative day

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2006


  "World Trade Center" Paramount Pictures 2 hours, 5 minutes Paramount Pictures/Francois Duha

"World Trade Center"

Paramount Pictures

2 hours, 5 minutes

Paramount Pictures/Francois Duha

When it was announced that there were, not one, but two 9/11 movies coming out this year, many people let out a groan of disgust. What could be tackier than to subject our nation’s darkest day to the movie-of-the-week treatment? It felt greedy and exploitative and, frankly, the wound was far too recent to explore with any objectivity.

With that in mind, you can only imagine the reaction that was heard when it was revealed that one of the two would be directed by everybody’s favorite conspiracy theorist, Oliver Stone.

Now, I like Stone. His movies are almost always thought-provoking and are amazing, technically. And with an event as big as 9/11, I’m sure there is plenty of muck to be raked, but again, it felt too soon. Stone’s take on the tragedy was sure to be an incendiary assault on Bush, the Saudis, the Republicans and the CIA, spreading responsibility for the attacks to everyone from the White House to the Mafia. It would be Michael Moore, but with technical wizardry and sophisticated story-telling enough to actually make it all seem plausible.

Well, the joke was on us, because Stone, far from sensationalizing the event, has made, possibly, the least political, least critical movie of his career.

“World Trade Center” is a sad, intimate, and ultimately triumphant tale of courage and kinship in the face of insurmountable obstacles. If it seems a little overly earnest at times, that is because there are no villains, no dark depths of the soul to plumb, only bravery, self-sacrifice, and the pain of loved ones lost. Nicholas Cage and Michael Pea play John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, respectively, two Port Authority Police officers who, like hundreds of other first responders, were inside the towers when the World Trade Center fell.

Unlike most, however, Jimeno and McLoughlin survived the ordeal becoming two of the last survivors to be pulled out of the wreckage. The relatively common knowledge of the men’s survival does nothing to dull the tension of their ordeal, however, as hour after hour crawls by with every hope of rescue slowly slipping away.

Meanwhile, at home, the men’s families, along with hundreds of others, wait for any word of the officers’ whereabouts. It is a brutal, gut-wrenching wait and, as the wives, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhall strike a perfect balance between manic fear and stoic acceptance.

Added to the mix are the stories of the heroic men and women who stepped up at just the right moment and made the difference in the lives of Jimeno and McLoughlin. Most prominent are the characters of Dave Karnes, an ex-Marine who donned his old uniform and strode past the barricades into the wreckage, ignoring all orders to the contrary, ending up finding the two lost men, and Chuck Sereika, an ex-paramedic who also dug out his old uniform and waded into the fray to help. The character of Karnes is given much more play than Sereika, which is unfortunate, but I think Stone had his reasons.

For all its earnestness and honest admiration for the way the country came together immediately after 9/11, with people literally laying their lives on the line to jump in and help, Stone can’t get completely away from his political leanings. Karnes, a devout Christian and severely militaristic man, comes off as alternately creepy and admirable; frightening and reassuring. Though from what I’ve read, Stone sticks very closely to actual events — Karnes dialogue and actions were detailed by multiple witnesses afterward — I believe this character is Stone’s caveat; his warning, if you will.

Karnes speaks of vengeance, and acts with righteous anger, as did we all immediately after the event. But in the light of this director’s previous work, it’s obvious that Stone is highly suspicious and critical of righteous anger; that moral certitude brings him no comfort. Whether the actual Dave Karnes was as he is represented, I believe the cinematic one is Oliver Stone’s way of suggesting that even good intentions can go too far.

Even with a slight leftist bent, “World Trade Center” comes off as fervently patriotic and hopeful, which puts it in striking contrast to the somber and tragic “United 93” of a few months ago. Both films, however, have one thing in common — that is, the almost total lack of moral judgment.

While “93” plays events out with almost documentary-like impassiveness, “Center” avoids the question by sticking close the people at the heart of the story. Neither man saw the plane hit the tower, so that scene is not in the movie. Neither man knew it was terrorists, nor did they have any knowledge of Bush’s whereabouts, nor did they care. What they, and the film, cared about was family, friends and home.

The movie focuses not on those issues that divide us as people living on this planet and in this country, but on those things which bring us together, and for that I am proud of Stone’s achievement. Whether he will ever make an incendiary 9/11 indictment movie remains to be seen, but no one can deny that, for once, he put the paranoia aside and gave us a film that all Americans can embrace. Grade: A

“World Trade Center” is rated PG-13 for frightening scenes of trauma, adult situations, and mild language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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