Oliver Stone's Version of 9/11: Not What You Might Expect

I recently had the opportunity to see World Trade Center, Oliver Stone’s latest entry into the American historical conversation. Apprehensive going in, I found myself unsure if I was ready to watch a dramatized movie about 9/11. The very existence of World Trade Center, and last spring’s United 93, creates an unsettling sense that Hollywood groupthink has decided that 2006 is the year to exploit this particular tragedy for summer box office revenues.

This film left me perhaps no less disturbed by Hollywood’s crass attitude toward America’s collective heartache, or Oliver Stone’s need to assert his relevance on every event of national import, but I also found something beneath the clutter that makes the film unworthy of outright condemnation.

One reviewer has used the word “uncomplicated” to describe Stone’s approach to the story of two police officers, John McLaughlin and William Jimeno, trapped beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center. Of twenty survivors ultimately pulled from the ruins, Jimeno and McLaughlin were numbers 18 and 19, respectively. Tastefully, there are no graphic shots — real or fabricated — of American 11 and United 175 crashing into the towers, or of the ensuing collapse of the buildings. Much of the movie follows McLaughlin and Jimeno, paralyzed and increasingly resigned to their own deaths, talking about their families, and more specifically their wives. As time passes, and each of them progresses further into shock, they both experience flashbacks and hallucinated conversations with their wives, about their problems and their futures together. Ultimately, of course, they will be rescued. The resolution is found not here, but in the reunion with their spouses, complete with their newly resurrected passion for them.

Like all great American stories, World Trade Center is, among other things, a love story, and with that in mind, seeing it should be given consideration beyond one’s visceral reaction to the stated subject matter.

There is no more quintessential an American story than surviving unspeakable adversity against long odds, and finding redemption in the process. The fact that this particular story is true adds to its depth, and for once, it seems Stone at least attempted to let a story tell itself, rather than lecturing his audience on what we should think.

This is not to say, though, that Stone has been able to restrain himself completely from condescension. He simply cannot resist using abrupt cuts and booming sounds to remind us that this is serious business, in case we’ve forgotten. While the melodrama in World Trade Center is thin when compared to other Stone outings, it is still present and, I think, unnecessary. His vocabulary has never included subtlety, and that tends to cheapen what should be a sober and meaningful discussion.

Of course, the question remains whether — regardless of how delicately approached — this discussion with Hollywood is simply taking place too soon. Twenty-nine years passed between the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the release of Tora! Tora! Tora! In 2006, the memorials are still under construction, the counseling is still taking place, and the monsters behind 9/11 are still out there, wishing to do us more harm.

All in all, I’m not sorry that I saw this movie, though I feared I would be. But asked for my opinion, I found myself unable and unwilling to use words like “good,” or “enjoyed.” A movie like this simply cannot be evaluated on the same grounds as pure entertainment.

The best I can do is to simply say this. Pleasantly surprised by genuinely touching aspects of World Trade Center, I am still haunted by the discomfort that Hollywood is again attempting to turn travesty into treasure.

Whether or not to invest two hours of your life in this movie is a decision each of us has to make for ourselves, armed with our own experiences with 9/11, and our ability to stomach Stone’s brand of filmmaking applied to it.

Don’t be afraid to go see World Trade Center. But don’t be afraid not to.