By Ray Pride
Heartfelt, hopeful, relentlessly linear, emotionally overwhelming: no one expected that movie when Oliver Stone was announced as the director of “World Trade Center.”
Based on exhaustive research and the stories of two police officers, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) trapped twenty feet beneath the rubble field, “World Trade Center” telegraphs a simple story of community coming together in difficult and tragic moments. The claustrophobia of their day and night under tons upon tons of rubble is palpable, but the story is a larger one, drawn by the perspective of others, especially their wives Donna (Maria Bello) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and of their unlikely savior, an all-business Marine named Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon).
Stone has a vivid identification with all of his subjects, and as a native New Yorker, he has had love and hate for that city. “Believe me, I grew up thirty years in New York,” he tells me, “and there is a love of New York no matter what happened there in your life. [But] I never felt that welcomed in New York, as an older person. As a film artist I had to leave, I made my fortune, my fortune was made in L.A. ‘Wall Street’ I made with love for my youth as well. New York is a vibrant city, it continues and changes directions every few years. This [script] is simply something that was sent to me. I thought it was a very fresh and original way of looking at 2001, which was at that point freighted with baggage. It was heavy. Everybody was a mess. But to remember that day, as it was, through these five stories.”
There’s a shot, shown in commercials, that rises from the characters’ entrapment and into the sky along a plume of miles-high smoke and then behind a satellite. “The point was to go from the microcosmic to the macro and to also remember this: on that day, the world did have great empathy for the United States, great empathy,” Stone, who turns 60 on September 15, says. “And pity. In some way, as you know, not that it was a political point, but it was squandered. I think we recognize that now.”
The buildings are seen imploding from within, coming down on people in the concourse. “I think that’s one of the most powerful sequences I’ve come across, the concept of the building coming down on you. It’s frightening to anybody. As a country, it’s a collective psyche thing, that we were attacked. In a sense, the nation was raped that day. I think the film is confronting some of those feelings and saying, ‘Look, go back to the psychiatrist and start talking to him about what it was, what was the day like? What is it you fear?’ Describe to me the rape, so to speak. Those guys and women fought back in the sense that they overcame fear. Of course they were terrified. But they fought back, they helped each other, they depended on each other.”
The term of art that was used to describe the crystal-perfect weather that day was “severe clear,” visible for miles on miles. The phrase also evokes the struggle to see something fresh, not to repeat or exploit tragic imagery from September 11 but also finding what is most iconic and true. What was Stone’s thinking about how to make it fresh? “There was a script and once I came aboard, I promised and delivered that I would shoot the parameters of this script. It was twenty-four hours, and the style of the film was a subjective style, we would follow these five people. So we’re inside John and Will. Neither John or Will saw the planes hit, ergo Will felt a brief shadow on the wall at 42nd Street there. You have to follow those [events]. They saw the buildings fall from within and the wives only saw the television, and presumably saw the building fall, and I wanted to explain what the fall inside looked like from the outside. It wasn’t necessary to show the plane, which is an incredible shot, true, but it’s like the Zapruder film, it just wasn’t necessary. We know.”
I ask him to describe more about this “collective national analysis.” Stone laughs. “[Whether it’s the right time] is beyond my choice. I mean, there is a destiny to these things. Vietnam took me fifteen years. I lived with Kennedy thirty years later, Nixon, twenty-five years later. But I’m a dramatist and I don’t regard myself as a… I can’t chase the news. You can’t possibly. The sad part about the Kennedy murder, and I know this is not part of the story, was that it lapsed. Nothing did happen. That was part of the urge to do, the spur to do it, because it had lain there dormant. I feel the same way about My Lai, frankly, and I was thinking about it for years, the My Lai massacre. And then Haditha happened and all these things that have happened. You feel like you should memorialize some of these, these things, because they get forgotten so quickly.”
“World Trade Center” is now playing.