Judge Eric Profancik's powers of Witty Banterage are ineffective against this film.
Only 20 people were pulled out alive.
When Oliver Stone announced that he was directing the first major Hollywood picture surrounding the events at Ground Zero on 9/11, a near unanimous buzz sounded. "Oliver Stone? Why him? Is he going to create some wild conspiracy theory about 9/11? Or maybe he's going to go on some god- awful political witch hunt." Stone is forever going to be associated with JFK, and it seems that his "wild theories" will forever haunt him, giving many people pause before they shell out their money to see any of his films. Perhaps the more important question at the time, one that did percolate but not quite as loudly, was if the country was ready for Hollywood to make a film about the tragedy that killed 2,749 people. What kind of film would Hollywood and Stone make? Would it be real? Would it be Hollywood? Would it treat the events and people associated with that awful day with the utmost respect they deserve?
As it turned out, people did not turn out in huge numbers for World Trade Center. It did decent business, but what kept people away? Was it Oliver Stone, or was it the fact that 9/11 hit the rawest nerve and that we are not ready to go through it all over again? It's probably a mixture of both, and now that it's out on DVD, you have another chance to see what Stone did. Do you want to, or should you want to?
Facts of the Case
This is the true story of two Port Authority officers who survived in the rubble from the collapse of both towers of the World Trade Center (WTC). John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage, Lord of War) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña, Crash) were responding like hundreds of others when they found themselves in the WTC concourse and Tower 2 fell. Luck was on their side as they were near an elevator shaft, which created a small pocket for the men to avoid being totally crushed. Over the next twenty-four hours, the two would keep each other alive until fate sent them a rescue party.
What type of movie did Oliver Stone create? Is it one of his fantastically wild, implausibly theorized fantasies (not how I would actually describe JFK, but…) riddled with Hollywood clichés and exaggerations, or do we have a realistic, natural, heartfelt attempt at telling one of the many magnificent and heroic tales from that fateful day? Or maybe it's somewhere in between? Let there be no doubt in your mind: Stone crafted an honest, humble, quiet, and true story about a small part of the tragedy on 9/11. There's no Hollywood bologna and no Stone propaganda. We have here a sincere, intimate, and personal recreation of that day.
But do we want to see this type of film? Are we ready? You'll have to determine your own answer, and some of us will say "yes" while others will say "no." Obviously, there are enough "yeses" to have prompted the movie, which brought in $70 million at the box office. We've also had A&E's Flight 93, Universal's United 93, DC 9/11: Time for Crisis, the ridiculed Path to 9/11, and probably a few other made-for-TV films that I don't recall. Add in Jules and Gedeon Naudet's haunting documentary and the multitude of Nova and Discovery Channel specials about the technical details of why the buildings collapsed, and you have some measure of an audience that wants to know more about 9/11. More so, people want both the technical and the personal. 9/11 is a painful moment that will forever horrify and entrance us.
World Trade Center is about the humanity of the day, praising the brave men and women who rushed into the buildings to try to help those trapped. John and Will were just two more men responding to the call, and they ended up doing nothing more "special" than surviving. That's not to belittle their immense bravery in going into the towers, but circumstances had them pinned beneath the rubble before they even knew what was going on, let alone rescue anyone. The rescuers became victims, trapped under tons of concrete and metal. That they survived is extraordinary, a miracle or sheer blind luck.
Only 20 people were pulled out alive from the 16-acre field of rubble. Will and John were numbers 18 and 19. That they survived and were found is amazing.
I feel an intense measure of guilt about World Trade Center. I feel guilty because I didn't thoroughly like this film. It's not a bad film at all, and it has many, many powerful moments. But its method of storytelling didn't connect with me. Because of that, I was able to keep my emotions in check and didn't feel my heart pounding in my chest from reliving the memories of that morning. My heart didn't jump into my throat, and so because WTC doesn't fully capture the sorrow of that day, I feel guilty. I feel guilty that I should like this movie more, to, in some odd and small way, honor the loss of all those people. After my first viewing, the two-minute text-based coda felt more powerful than what I had just watched. Guilt.
Why WTC didn't fully appeal to me is the split-mode of storytelling: detailing both the stories of John and Will trapped in the rubble and the harrow faced by their wives and families. I know that every person lost in the towers had a family, and every family was and is still grieving. Yet when we visit the McLoughlin and Jimeno families, I felt somehow removed from the story. That makes no sense as these women are scared out of the minds, wondering if they'll see their husbands again. Minute by minute they watch news unfold, relatives come to offer help, and other constant, painful reminders of the mayhem of the day are apparent. But watching Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello, The History of Violence) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mona Lisa Smile) worry oddly disconnected me from the story. I found myself wanting to return to John and Will in the hole and not spend so much time with their families. Their tale in the pile interested me, kept me riveted to the movie, and brought it back home for me.
On the flipside, how exactly do you do a two-hour movie about two men trapped in a hole? You've taken the task to take the macro event and tell it from a micro point of view. That micro point of view is truly so small that you've restricted yourself too much. Can two men trapped under rubble, who can't see each other, talking to each other about the minutiae of life, and trying to stay awake, sustain an audience for two hours? It's a shallow question but still valid. And the answer is "probably not." That's why we do need the two interweaving points of view. I know we need it, yet it just doesn't work in the movie. Donna and Allison kept John and Will alive, but it destroys the rhythm of the movie.
The bonus materials on the disc further exacerbated my unusual guilt complex. When I finished watching the movie, my reaction was clear (perhaps clearer and stronger than detailed above) in that I felt Stone missed the mark a little bit: the movie was an honest memorial to the victims, but it didn't completely work. Then as I watched the bonus materials, I found my guilt growing and wanting to like the movie more. The dedication to the story, the pain, the people involved, and just the connection to 9/11 itself implored me to want to fully embrace it. And with each new special feature my mind somehow found more to like in the movie itself.
This two-disc Commemorative Edition comes with plenty of bonus items about World Trade Center. On Disc One you will find:
• Audio Commentary by Oliver Stone—My first Stone commentary, and I must say he is one dry, monotone individual. I was initially afraid he would lull me to sleep, but my desire to hear every word in hopes of learning more about that fateful day kept me going to the end. He shares many stories about the making of the film (and people involved) and many general technical details about the film. It's an adequate track, but I never got that one detail I was looking for (something I didn't already know and would shock me).
• Audio Commentary by Will Jimeno, Scott Strauss, John Busching, and Paddy McGee—I enjoyed this track far more for two reasons. First, the participants are much more animated in their voices; and, second, because they were there. Jimeno dominates this commentary as the movie centers around him and his family more than the other three (who are the men who actually rescued John and Will, at an hour and a half into the movie). The additional details make this a definite must listen.
• Deleted / Extended Scenes (17.5 minutes)—Included are nine additional and extended sequences (with play all) with optional commentary from Stone. Most of these were the usual good cuts but scene #5, "Original Hole 2," should have been left in—at least the first half dealing with John and Will. There are some incredible details in this scene that will amaze, surprise, and move you.
On Disc two you will find much more:
• "The Making of World Trade Center" (53 minutes)—Broken down into three segments—"Committing to the Story" (15), "Shooting in NY and LA" (20), and "Closing Wounds" (18)—this featurette can be summarized quite simply: Making the movie as real as possible. This details the process and the constant effort to make it accurate and real.
• "Common Sacrifice" (54.5 minutes)—This one is in two sections—"Rescue" (27.5) and "Recovery" (27)—and is basically the movie, John and Will's story, without the movie. People recount the events of that day.
• "Building Ground Zero" (25 minutes)—Details the complexities of building the rubble of the towers and the hole the men were trapped in.
• "Visual and Special Effects" (11.5 minutes)—An interesting look at the various effects used to rebuild and re-destroy the towers. I was surprised how much wasn't actual footage, and I would have enjoyed a longer featurette.
• "Oliver Stone's New York" (24 minutes)—An informal discussion about Stone's recollections of growing up in New York as he walks around the city.
• "Q&A with Oliver Stone" (13 minutes): Self-explanatory segment taken from the BAFTA "David Lean Lecture Series."
What about the transfers? I am very pleased to state that Paramount's work on this disc is top-notch. The 1.85:1 anamorphic print is almost perfect, which is an exceptionally tough job for this film considering the amount of black and dust throughout the film. When there, colors are rich and vibrant; when not, blacks are deep, distinct, and accurate. Details, sharpness, and contrast are also excellent. I noticed but one tiny flaw, a bit of artifacting, but it's wholly negligible on this transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is also first-rate with clean dialogue and substantial and realistic usage of the surrounds and bass. You will not have any the slightest complaint about the DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I think I've covered my odd dilemma with the story's narrative, so I'd like to use this section to mention two more positive things about the film. Nic Cage is definitely not one of my favorite actors, but he becomes John McLoughlin convincingly and gives a solid turn as the noble PAPD sergeant. His performance—not to mention Michael Peña's—is part of the reason you want the story to stay focused on them. Also, the musical score in this film is beautiful: simple, melodic, and haunting. It enhances the film perfectly.
Though World Trade Center failed to completely reignite the anxiety, sadness, and pain I felt from 9/11, it is a film with merit. In the end, it's unfair to expect a movie to recreate absolutely the anguish I (we all) felt on 9/11 and to use that as an indicator of the movie's quality but that is my barometer in this unique circumstance. Half the story works and half of it doesn't, and because of that I am only going to recommend this one for rental. It is a good movie with many powerful moments, and it completely eradicates the worries that Stone would create a bad movie. For those who can fully embrace the movie, this two-disc edition is the one you want to pick up.
World Trade Center cannot be charged on any count.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Oliver Stone
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