Stone’s World Trade Center: Can Two Stand for Many?

Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, from the screenplay by Andrea Berloff, based on the true-life experiences of John and Donna McLoughlin and William and Allison Jimeno, doesn’t pretend to encompass the entire catastrophe of 9/11, and that is its great negative virtue. This film is even less ambitious—and certainly less presumptuous—than Paul Greengrass’ United 93 earlier this year.

Once again, the alarm is being sounded by naysayers that it is “too soon” to make movies on the subject of 9/11. Five years is too soon? The first Hollywood film dealing with a key American defeat in the Pacific, John Farrow’s Wake Island, came out the same year (1942) that the American Marine garrison on the island was virtually annihilated by the Japanese. That was, of course, another time, another war and another world. More people seemed more involved back then. The current war on terror seems to be something that most of us can switch off on our television sets and forget that it is still going on far away; comparatively few of us are actively or even emotionally involved. In fact, we were solemnly instructed by our commander in chief shortly after 9/11 that it was our patriotic duty to keep spending freely and enjoying ourselves in order to keep our economy flourishing. Indeed, I have already met people who say they’re not going to see World Trade Center because they’re afraid it will depress them.

Anyway, it seems a little ridiculous to focus an entire film on two survivors from a disaster that took more than 2,700 lives. Indeed, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, two Port Authority police officers, were the 18th and 19th out of a mere 20 survivors who were pulled out of the rubble after the Twin Towers collapsed, killing a few hundred police officers and firefighters. Can the same charges be leveled at Mr. Stone, Ms. Berloff and their colleagues as were leveled at Steven Spielberg and his collaborators for celebrating Oskar Schindler’s achievement in saving the lives of some 1,200 Jews out of the six million who perished in the Nazi Holocaust? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The important thing to remember is that neither 9/11 nor the Nazi Holocaust are very far from our current concerns.

I had barely begun my review when news of the foiled Heathrow bomb plot flooded the media, pushing the Israeli-Hezbollah-Lebanese-Iranian-Syrian-Iraqi-Sunni-Shiite-American-British-U.N. morass onto the media back burner. The new nightmare of liquid explosives on trans-Atlantic jetliners threatened to wreak havoc on both the airline and the cosmetic industries. Some people are demanding more ethnic and racial profiling, and new conspiracy theories are spreading like wildfire among the bloggers on the Internet; again, there were the suggestions that 9/11 was pre-arranged by the U.S. government to facilitate our invasion of Iraq. Of course, there are still people out there who fervently believe that the J.F.K. assassination was engineered by L.B.J. and his minions. The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they never explain how these secrets can be kept (and multiple book contracts forestalled) in our centers of power.

Oliver Stone is no stranger to the conspiracy theories engendered by political controversy, and he has certainly never been afraid to be considered leftish to a fault. But in World Trade Center, he plays everything straight and even a bit conformist. He realizes that he is dealing with real-life stories, real-life backgrounds and a real-life tragic event for the thousands of surviving relatives of the victims. His two major protagonists are suburban civil servants, devout Christians and dedicated men. There is a good chance, as Mr. Stone himself has admitted, that their politics don’t correspond to his own. (Indeed, in a foolishly unguarded moment after 9/11, Mr. Stone expressed an interest in telling the story of 9/11 from the point of view of the Islamic terrorists.) No matter: Mr. Stone is no stranger to courage and heroism either, regardless of ideology.

There is no foolishness in World Trade Center, only the sheer shock of surprise with which most of us responded to the events on that day. The action begins before daybreak in Goshen, N.Y., where Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) of the Port Authority Police Department is getting ready for the daily commute to his job. He tries not to wake his still-sleeping wife, Donna (Maria Bello). After he looks in on his four sleeping children, he gets into his car for the drive to the Port Authority terminal. It is the morning of Sept. 11, at first a day like any other. The exposition is minimal, seemingly random, but every so often all the sight lines converge to the now-vanished Twin Towers. The first accounts of the attack are repeated, with the same familiar images shown again and again.

At the time, I was at 89th Street and Madison Avenue waiting for the M-4 bus to Columbia University. I had heard something on CNN about a plane hitting the World Trade Center, but I had assumed that it was an accident. I knew more at the time than Sergeant McLoughlin and his contingent of policemen as they set out to rescue people from the north tower: They didn’t know that a second plane had hit the south tower. Communications were scandalously bad all around, but Mr. Stone and his collaborators do not indulge in any second-guessing of the authorities. They cut almost immediately to the chase, or rather to the Beckett-like stasis of the rubble under which McLoughlin and two of his police comrades soon find themselves buried, still alive but, to all intents and purposes, effectively entombed. All the other members of the would-be rescue group are dead, and when one of the three survivors uses his service revolver to end his benumbed despair, McLoughlin is left alone under the rubble with Officer Will Jiminez (Michael Peña), who is not within sight of McLoughlin but is within earshot, so that the two men can communicate throughout their 12-hour ordeal. Much of the rest of the two-hour-plus film takes place in these ultra-confined surroundings.

The only “relief” from this claustrophobic mise-en-scène, imaginatively reproduced on a Los Angeles soundstage, are frequent extended visits to the anguished families of McLoughlin and Jiminez in Goshen, N.Y., and Clifton, N.J., respectively. Fortunately, one could not ask for more accomplished performers than Mr. Cage and Mr. Peña underground, and Ms. Bellow and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Allison Jiminez aboveground, to sustain this constricted narrative.

This is to say that World Trade Center is an unusually strenuous and taxing exercise in summer entertainment, and I would not recommend it at all were it not for the exquisite performances of the four principals, and the sincerity and conviction with which Mr. Stone has directed them. As the auteur himself aptly observed: “Although my politics and John and Will’s may be different, it didn’t matter: we all got along. I can make a movie about their experiences because they went through something I can understand. Politics does not enter into it—it’s about courage and survival.”

A Bright Spot

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Little Miss Sunshine, from a screenplay by Michael Arndt, turns out to be the funniest and most gracefully written, acted and directed dysfunctional-American-family farce comedy of the year thus far. It is also satirically satisfying and happily heartwarming, and this is quite an achievement for a moviegoing year so widely deplored as this one. I have never heard of the co-directors or the screenwriter, and that is more good news for my readers, since I cannot possibly have any auteurist ax to grind or sway my opinion. As far as I could see, there wasn’t a false move in the picture, which is amazing for a genre in which so many things can go wrong and over the top. And yet the filmmakers have found ingenious ways to keep the action moving without any long-winded explanations of the extreme eccentricities of all the major characters.

In one way or another, all six members of this colorfully extended family qualify as losers of one kind or another. This is particularly and ironically true of Richard (Greg Kinnear), the family’s stuffy paterfamilias, who lectures to largely empty halls on the “seven steps to success.” Sheryl (Toni Collette), Richard’s patiently long-suffering wife, is unsuccessfully battling a compulsive smoking habit, but she is currently preoccupied with her gay and suicidal brother-in-law, Frank (Steve Carrell), the self-proclaimed No. 1 Proust scholar in America, who has just lost both his teaching job and his male graduate assistant to the No. 2 Proust scholar in America. When No. 2 wins a MacArthur “genius” grant as well, it is more than Frank can bear: He slashes his wrists, and Sheryl comes to the hospital emergency room to take him home to the family. Frank has to share a room with his teenage nephew Dwayne (Paul Dano), who comes equipped with his own set of oddities, namely a passion for Nietzsche and a vow of silence that he’s taken until he’s old enough to become a pilot for the U.S. Air Force. Communicating exclusively with a pencil and a small notepad, Dwayne asks the amused Frank if he plans to commit suicide in their shared bedroom. When Frank assures him that he’s not planning such a course of action, Dwayne expresses his relief—also in writing.

The family circle at the dinner table is completed by surly, heroin-sniffing Grandpa (Alan Arkin) and the would-be “Little Miss Sunshine” herself, pint-sized, bespectacled Olive (Abigail Breslin). During the predictably stormy dinner of hopelessly incompatible egos, Sheryl receives a call from her sister telling her that Olive has successfully qualified for the “Little Miss Sunshine” contest, to be held in California.

Richard decides in his infinite wisdom that the whole family will accompany Olive, since neither Frank nor Grandpa can be left behind. Besides, on the long trip from their home in Albuquerque, N.M., to California, Richard can stop off in Scottsdale, Ariz., to pressure his publishing connection into releasing his seven steps to success in best-selling book form.

What happens next would seem to be foreordained, but it really isn’t. Of course, everything goes wrong for everyone, but never in such a way that any of the family members is irreparably alienated or separated from the concept of the family as a whole. At times, the narrative skirts the edge of gruesomeness without ever falling into that abyss, and in the end everyone has learned to accept his or her limitations within the context of the unwavering, if often contentious, solidarity of the family itself. The timing of all six leads is impeccable, and it is often the rest of the world that appears a bit shortsighted and out of step when confronted by the irresistible unity of a family. If I tried to describe the film in greater detail, I would be giving away much of the sheer pleasure of the experience. So see it and discover its exuberantly kinetic pleasures for yourself.

Correction: Last week’s column erroneously spelled the name of the great critic and scholar Louis Kronenberger with a “C” rather than a “K.”

Stone’s World Trade Center:  Can Two Stand for Many?