Sunday, August 13, 2006

"Alive in hell"

Seeing World Trade Center (Paramount) is a walk in the park compared to the experience that was United 93. I don't say this to belittle its accomplishment, or to tread on lingering 9/11 sensitivities (watching the trailer, which had been appended to Little Miss Sunshine, was enough to make my wife anxious). It's quintessential reassurance cinema, with a star name (a taciturn, controlled Nicolas Cage), measured use of documentary footage and recreation (only one person is shown jumping to his or her death; others are heard, not seen, as in footage taken that day), an emphasis on family and friendship (to its credit, the screenplay, by Andrea Berloff, has a little humor, too), and a firebrand director tapping a new, traditional vein. World Trade Center is William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, brought up to date by 60 years, and condensed to a single day.

There have been two Oliver Stones. One, of course, is the muckraker, the one who speaks truth to power, in films like Platoon, Salvador, and JFK, the one without whom conservative-held TV and radio shows would be looking to fill airtime--and the one whom is in the awkward position of being praised to the skies by the usual suspects for his new film. [That World Trade Center opened to expectations, and not beyond them, is a hopeful sign that perhaps the right can't get out the vote where movies are concerned, not that it's the flag waver Cal Thomas would like his foot soldiers to believe.] The other makes gonzo, druggy-seeming, go-for-broke pictures I have trouble sitting through once, The Doors, Natural Born Killers, and Alexander among them. World Trade Center suggests the emergence of an elder statesman, a Wyler or a George Stevens, in Giant mode; the rancor over the American dream, in pictures like Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, or the pasttime epic Any Given Sunday is entirely absent. United 93 ends in horrifying freefall, with the camera spinning downwards; World Trade Center has numerous shots of the camera itself engaged in uplift, including the coup de cinema of the viewfinder leaving Ground Zero and the world altogether, alighting on a satellite beaming images of the destruction around the globe. The havoc, however briefly, unites citizens as one.

But the old Stone has not entirely been overturned. The film's most troubling figure, its protector and destroyer, is the ex-Marine Karnes (rhymes with "Barnes," the misguided and homicidal Tom Berenger character in Platoon), who like the helpful golem Scott Glenn plays in Michael Mann's The Keep, springs into action when unspeakable evil is loosed. [Michael Shannon's performance is of unyielding, Frankenstein-monster intensity.] His arrival at the site, where trapped transit cops McLoughlin (Cage) and Jimeno (Michael Pena) are, in the latter's words, "alive in hell," is framed like an angel's descent into brimstone. But the treatment is not uncritical. Karnes' motivation, once salvation of the fallen is achieved, is vengeance--the 9-12 impulse, from which we, led by our Karnesian politicians right and left, are all reeling. In interviews, Stone has spoken of Karnes (who has since served two tours of duty in Iraq) as a "transitional" figure, one who could easily have been downplayed. But he gives us the monolithic, unapproachable figure, brave and terrifying in equal measure.

Stone is not often referred to as a director of religious pictures, perhaps because God is often seen through the prism of a peyote trip (The Doors) or invoked harshly (Born on the Fourth of July). He's not a "believer," in the sense of a Mel Gibson (before his fall) or Cecil B. DeMille. But faith plays a key role in a number of his films, and World Trade Center is consecrated by an actual vision of a solarized Jesus, as experienced by a thirsty Jimeno. A more cautious director would have left Jesus to our imagination, but Stone's wilder, trippier instincts take flight. In the context of a respectable, narrowly focused recounting of the day's events, his vital, undisciplined energies haven't been domesticated after all.

For as carefully middle-of-the-road as World Trade Center mostly is, what it left me with was a sense of anger. Watching the two men struggle in the "pick-up sticks" of the rubble, as one rescuer succintly puts it in the film (that's exactly what it looked like when I visited the wreckage two weeks after the attack), made me lament the boondoggle of the so-called "Freedom Tower," which if it ever gets built will be a heavily guarded no-fly zone to mock its very name. May it never get built; besides being a tempting target for terror (those who cannot remember the past, etc., etc.), it will never attract significant tenant support (much like its predecessor, a symbol rather than a success) and is wholly knee-jerk as commemoration. I think much of the site should be given over to parkland and memorials, with the public transport side of the buttressing "bathtub," a troubling open wound through which PATH trains pass, left exposed as a viewing area. If World Trade Center, the movie, gets anyone rethinking and debating World Trade Center, the memorial, then Oliver Stone will have added immeasurably to the public good.

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