Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Too Soon? World Trade Center Seems Self-Indulgent

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting characters, Good direction
The Bad: Predictable plot, Not daring enough, Mood too light, Some flat performances
The Basics: Created too soon after the September 11, 2001 attacks, World Trade Center is not entertaining, dramatic or edgy enough to keep viewers who lived through the day interested or engaged.

Lately, I feel like I'm writing a lot of disclaimers to my reviews to prevent me from being lynched by my readers. I figured, when I sat down to watch World Trade Center it would be a good opportunity to write a safe, puff review that couldn't possibly offend anyone. Well, my hopes were pretty much shattered when I didn't like the movie and I was resigned to writing another extensive disclaimer in one of my movie reviews. Sigh.

Port Authority cops John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno are working on the morning of September 11, 2001 when a plane hits one of the towers of the World Trade Center. They rush in to aid the evacuation of one of the towers and get trapped underneath the concourse between the two buildings. As they wait to be rescued or die beneath the rubble, their families fret and respond to the attacks on New York City, the Pentagon and the way of life in the United States of America.

World Trade Center is directed by Oliver Stone, who directed U Turn (reviewed here!) which I recently saw. Fortunately, for the viewer, Stone does not subject the viewer to his inane directoral style of that earlier movie. Instead of cheap camera movements and an annoying style, Stone tells a remarkably straightforward story with his direction on this movie.

The problem is, World Trade Center comes too soon and Stone is not daring enough as a director to shock the audience. Put simply, because the story is based on actual events, the turnout of the movie is never in serious doubt. The story lacks a real sense of jeopardy because in order to accept that this is based on actual events, there has to be someone left alive to tell the story. In short, there was not a moment of the film that I did not believe that John and Will were going to survive.

I have lived in New York State all my life and I lived through the events of September 11, 2001. Been there, done that. We get what happened and it's wonderful to tell a nice, heroic story about the day. The problem, in addition to the lack of jeopardy, comes in the story being told by screenwriter Andrea Berloff. Berloff abandons the story from the perspective of the McLoughlin's and Jimeno's long enough to show people reacting to the first tower being hit. Why, then, do Berloff and Stone not show it happening?

Throughout the film, the Port Authority cops are in doubt as to the second tower being hit, which seems odd because the second plane hit approximately fifteen minutes after the first and by the time most networks had visuals of the first tower on fire, the second plane appeared and hit the other tower. That that fact remains in doubt for so very long seems odd, even if it was a part of these two cop's reality.

Anyway, as people who lived through these events, it seems strange not to show at least the first hit to clearly establish the magnitude of what is happening. But that's the easy disappointment of World Trade Center as a movie. The other disappointment is one that it's hard to articulate given the emotions of the event. It's also one that we, as viewers, knew we would not be seeing.

In short, great drama is made from watching the human struggle. We watch movies about The Alamo not because we think the Texans are going to win, but because they put up a good fight. There is little more dramatic than heroes falling. It's not funny, for events that are recent it's not entertaining, but it's human to root for the struggle, if not the outcome. In simple terms in this case, World Trade Center fails in its drama because Stone created a film too soon to the event that is based on the tale of survivors and is not likely to be a shocker. It's too soon to send people to a movie where those trapped underground give a valiant fight for survival but perish hours before help arrives. Stone is just not going to make that film and the viewer knows it.

Lacking the essential drama of whether or not the two protagonists trapped underground will survive, the movie turns to the families who are waiting to learn their fate. This involves a lot of people acting surprised, shocked and . . . waiting. The dramatic tension that is supposed to be added by John's son Steven bugging his mom to do something comes across as more annoying than anything else.

Lead actors Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena do fine as John and Will, though they are not given much to work with. Most of their scenes involve them talking in the dark with no ability to express themselves through body language. Cage, especially, works his voice to create stress and the idea that his condition is deteriorating. Because most of their scenes are filmed in the dark, it's hard to say how Cage and Pena perform using facial expressions.

On the other front, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Will's wife quite well. Her struggle is compelling and interesting. As she waits to find out if Will is alive, she struggles over the fact that she has to consider raising her unborn baby on her own. She plays the role with an intriguing mix of strength and raw emotionalism that captures the human condition in this type of conflict perfectly.

Sadly, the same cannot be said of Maria Bello, who played Donna, John's wife. Bello is flat and listless. Her performance adds nothing to make the viewer empathize with her. Instead, on John's side of the conflict, none of the characters pop. None of the performances there stand out as interesting or well-presented. So, while I felt for John being trapped under the rubble, it was hard to see what he was fighting for based on the performances in this film.

As well, his half of the story relies heavily on flashbacks. As John lays dying, he occasionally recalls a moment with him and his wife. Strangely, so does his wife. This becomes problematic because it guts the menace of the moment. Trapped under the rubble, it in some ways becomes less important if John (the character in the movie, NOT the actual guy who was trapped under the rubble!) survives or not if he has the ability to escape into his mind and revisit some past wonderful moment. In short, to borrow from the earlier notes of heroism, there's nothing terribly dramatic about dying with a smile on your face because despite the hell you went through buried alive, your last moments were consumed with escaping into the best memories of your life.

The movie's self-indulgent nature comes to a peak at the end of the film and it's troublesome enough to be worth mentioning. John McLoughlin has a voice-over at the end of the movie (voice by Cage, of course) which might well be from his account, but seems terribly out of place in this movie. John says, about September 11th, something to the effect of "A lot of people saw evil that day, but I saw something good." Indeed, the tagline for the film is: "The World Saw Evil That Day. Two Men Saw Something Else." After sitting through two hours of this movie, this just feels cheap. McLoughlin didn't see anything good in the movie, he was trapped under rubble for 22 hours! He didn't see much of anything. And while that might be a noble sentiment, it doesn't fit this film.

Perhaps should this type film be attempted again, a far more powerful presentation - as opposed to alternating between John and Will, their families and the Marine who comes to find them - sticking with just the survivors trapped underground would create something far more dramatic, difficult and real. I might actually watch that movie a second time, if it were done well.

In short, John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno survived something truly terrible, while attempting something heroic. Their story is a great tale of survival and keeping cool under pressure. This movie, however, is not. It's certainly not entertaining.

For other works with Donna Murphy, please check out my reviews of:
The Fountain
Spider-Man 2
Star Trek: Insurrection


For other film reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for a comprehensive listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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