Friday, August 11, 2006

World Trade Center: A Review

Against my gut, I went to see the opening of World Trade Center.

I say against my gut not because I thought I would hate it, but because I was afraid it would evoke the exact reaction it did from me: sadness. Great, heaping mounds of it.

I am not an Oliver Stone fan, but this is not to say that I hate his work. Truth be told, I am relatively ignorant of his works except by way of plot summaries and word of mouth. And anyway, every artist should be measured only on the basis of the work at hand. Each creation is a tabla rosa.

Is five years too soon to make a movie about the collapse of the Trade Center? I think so, based solely on the visceral reaction I had watching it. But let’s first be honest about what this movie is: it is a tribute to the courage of these two men and the men and women who were the first responders. It was a tribute to those lost as well. Should the story be told? Absolutely. It deserves telling. As a tribute movie, this story works.

The scenes from the inside of the towers collapsing which, of course, only one of the 20 survivors could authenticate, is harrowing and nightmarish. It had all the markings of one of those 1970’s disaster movies. There is no fear of spoiling any ending here because well, we know the story. The buildings fall and these guys are rescued. The drama then is somewhat stunted, as it is in all biopics or historically based movies. The only thing these sorts of movies have to offer is some sort of unique perspective. Unfortunately, perspective is the one thing lacking in this movie – the one thing that might actually make me feel that I walked away with something, anything, other than this great sense of loss.

The first half of the movie re-invokes that same sort of voyeuristic compulsion that held us all glued to our TVs when the event actually happened. After it happened, when the news showed the towers fall again and again, we knew what was going to happen, but we still watched anyway. This movie has the same sort of effect and I have to say, it’s disquieting. It was horrible when I experienced it the first time, and this “rebound” voyeurism is even worse because I should know better.

There is a scene where Allison (Maggie Gyllenhall) has to leave her house she is so distraught over the looming reality that she may be a widow. She goes out into her New York neighborhood and the soft glow of all the other row houses TVs spills out into the night. Presumably these people are glued to their TVs just as we all were. I must say that Gyllenhall’s performance was among the best, as she portrays a young pregnant woman not knowing whether her husband was going to be coming home. She exhibited in a realistic way a woman in the grips of some sort of post traumatic stress disorder very convincingly, even to the denial she heaped upon herself to get her through the hours.

To some extent, this is what Stone is banking on here. This retelling of a familiar story that offers little if anything new can only be to call up in us that same sense of dread and horror that we felt when we first watched the towers fall. That is exactly what I was feeling. Maybe that is how he tries to get us to buy in and become emotionally invested but it is not done well enough; the writing is not good enough, or the observations are not keen enough to make it seem sincere.
The first half of this movie is about pulling me back into to that swath of grief that laid me emotionally bare enough to welcome the comfort of strangers, good will from people I’d never met, or from people halfway around the world. This is touched on briefly as some actual footage from world reactions is played just after the attack. The complete shock and awe on the faces of those who should have been disinterested parties really reminded me of that moment of closeness as well. As sad a time as that was, there was a great sense of common unity and this movie does well to remind us of this. But this movie was not about that moment. It was about the theater of the absurd that the fall of the towers represented.

Unfortunately that sense of oneness was quickly abandoned by a “a few good men who will need to avenge” this sort of act as Marine Sgt David Karnes (Michael Shannon) presciently says at the end of the movie into his cell phone to some unknown person.

Karnes in fact is one of the most interesting minor characters of the movie. Presumably based on a real person, Karnes discerns while deep in prayer in his evangelical church in Wilton, Connecticut, that God is telling him that he needs to go down to Manhattan and help. Appearing heroic in a GI Joe sort of way, he actually came off a bit creepy in my estimation. This sort of “white knight” persona represents the same sort of zealotry that allowed those to fly planes into the Trade Center towers in the first place. Is Stone trying to teach us about the nature of zealotry; that it can be a double-edged sword, which can kill and save? The irony is obvious and almost too exaggerated to be by accident. But who knows? Maybe the guy really is that rigid. Still the irony is perfect, even if Stone did not intend it.

The movie really breaks down when it tries to explore the inner workings of the minds of Officers Mcloughlin and Jimeno. The attempt to get us into their heads while they are dying (and face it that is what this movie is about, watching these two characters die while others scramble to rescue them) tries to take this movie into a direction it shouldn’t even go. There is nothing deep about their reaction. It is perfectly normal and understandable that they should have visions as they are dying. And so what? Office Jimeno (Michael Peno) is worried about what his wife is going to name the baby when he is gone. Officer Mcloughlin (Nicholas Cage) has doubts about whether he was the kind of husband he should have been. These are very ordinary things that any one of us can relate to and I guess that was the design here: to further draw us in on a personal emotional level but that is unnecessary. It was an attempt at something meaningful, but it just came off cheesy to me.

The latter part of the movie does resemble a Hallmark moment, but there are moving moments as well. When Mcloughlin says to his wife Donna (Maria Bellow) as he is being brought into the hospital “you kept me alive” you can’t help but bawl. But in a way, I sort of feel that my grief for the WTC tragedy is being manipulated and exploited.

The fact is I am not ready to give up my grief about what happened on that day. I don’t want to “feel good” about 9/11. I want to be connected to other humans – the way we all felt in the first few days following this disaster. It is clear that Stone meant this movie to be an homage to these people. But for every Mcloughlin and Jimeno there were thousands more still buried in all that rubble or worse, vaporized never to be heard from or seen again – as though they’d never existed in the first place save for those countless grieving others left behind. There were thousands more family members who worried and did not have the same sort of joyful outcome that Officers McLoughlin and Jimeno's families did. They even attempt a classic dramatic twist to keep us emotionally involved as both wives rush down to the hospital after being told one just “walked out onto Liberty street” only to be told later that he was still being extricated. It doesn’t work though because we know the ending. The two wives in a sort of attempt at eerie “woo-woo” confluences, actually pass each other at the hospital, but neither knows the other, or how their lives are unknowingly bound together. But all of our lives are that way after 9/11. Again, maybe it really happened. Who knows? But it seemed contrived to me.

It’s not that modern art ignores what happened on 9/11 nor should it. Subtle uses of the WTC collapse, as in the Jonathon Safron Foers’ book “Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud” for example, uses the events of that day as a backdrop that drives young Oscar Schell to seek a connection with his father who perished in the WTC collapse. The tragedy is used to uncover the 9/11 in our own lives – those collapsing building moments that we have with others, how we are all survivors of one sort or another. In this case, the WTC collapse is really used as a metaphor.
The bottom line is that this is a story that should be told, but not now, and not with the idea of trying to use the heroism that was exhibited that day to smooth over the tragic nature of the event. We are grieving still and five years is not enough time. One hundred years will not be enough time.

I am glad these two officers survived. But people who subscribe to psychoanalysis claim real growth only comes through pain, I’d like to see the devastating events of that day sensitize us as a people. Sensitize us against war, against what is happening in Iraq, against what is happening in Lebanon, and Darfur, against violence in general.

That would be a truly heroic thing. It is only in that sort of context that the rescues of Offices Mcloughlin and Jimeno would be best told. It would make all the suffering and loss almost seem worth it.

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