Oliver Stone Tries for Another Oscar

After years of wandering in the wilderness of conspiracy theory movies and embarrassing flops, brilliant moviemaker, Oliver Stone, tried to get back in Hollywood’s good graces by filming a tribute to the victims of 9/11. He obviously wants to get back to winning Oscars — though on his own terms, of course. The movie opening this week was preceded by advanced screenings for opinion leaders, including one in Washington for conservatives.

Critics generally give Stone credit for leaving behind the typical liberal “baggage” to make an apolitical movie. But I think several political statements were implied by the way the movie was filmed and I don’t think it is accidental that the film provides no bridge from 9/11 to the War on Terrorism.

But, as Stone told a reporter, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center towers “comes with baggage.” There is no way to avoid the politics behind the attacks even by focusing on the personal impact of that day on two families. Minus its complicating factors, the movie becomes a simple, though emotionally gripping, slice-of-life from a monumental event: the story of two policemen who get trapped in the rubble of 9/11, manage to stay alive long enough to be rescued and, after numerous operations, return to a relatively normal life with their wives, children and extended family whose anguish during their ordeal is a tremendously moving sub-plot of the movie.

Except for the shadow of a plane that foretells the terrorism, Stone’s version of the story morphs into just another challenging event or natural disaster. Leave out the dynamic presence of Rudy Guliani and there is no evidence of the extraordinary leadership that so transformed that crisis. Omit President Bush’s stirring appearance with the bullhorn and the national and international impact of the attack seems incidental. Purge all patriotism from the scene and subordinate the heroism of the rescuers and the story is merely another moving account of extraordinary personal duress and survival.

The only person shown to be interested in avenging the attack is — no surprise — a Marine who is a devout Christian. I can’t help but wonder if the movie’s respectful treatment of people of faith is just another of the numerous recent attempts to prove that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on respect for religion — paving the way for left-wing political victories in 2006 and 2008? Imagine, Oliver Stone portraying religion in a positive light; even a left-leaning liberal moviemaker respects American and Judeo-Christian values.

Typically, Stone would have considerable input on the screenplay, but the World Trade Center movie is only the second movie of Stone’s career that he did not write or help write the screenplay. He chose to adhere strictly to the screenwriter’s focus. Not to take anything away from those two courageous men; it is horrific to even imagine being practically buried alive under all that cement and steel. Nor would I want to take anything away from their families whose agony was painful to watch on-screen; I wouldn’t want to live through what they endured. But, to me, the screenplay loses something when it ignores the larger context and the pain of the families of the hundreds of firemen and policemen who died that day. Perhaps I am too cynical in thinking that maybe having firefighters and policemen as a group reduced to mere splashes of yellow in the background of the movie had something to do with the Madison Square Garden event about a month after 9/11 when they booed liberal Hillary Clinton.

Ultimately, it is impossible to be apolitical about the evil attacks on America. Those two men and their families would be the first to point to the heroism of those who gave their lives in the effort to rescue people from the flaming hell created by the terrorists determined to destroy the gleaming towers that were so symbolic of capitalistic America.

With three Oscars to his credit, Stone is without a doubt a creative and skillful moviemaker. But, the fact that he views the attacks as “baggage” explains why, finally, he couldn’t depict the virulent hatred of America and our response to the terrorism.

Yet, the 9/11 “baggage” was necessary to interpret 9/11 in a transcendent way that conveys a larger vision of the attacks and their significance to our national psyche. As personal drama, it is affecting theatre, but it doesn’t convey the essence of that pivotal day in 2001 when evil triumphed and fear became a way of life for the most powerful nation in the world.