World Trade Center

Sunday, July 22, 2007

World Trade Center is a film that hopes to gain importance simply by virtue of its subject matter. It thinks that because it’s about 9/11 people will immediately respond to it. And while it’s impossible not to be affected by certain aspects of the film, it really doesn’t deserve some of the emotion it generates. It’s a pretty cheap film – cheap in that while the magnificent United 93 presented a totally objective view of what happened on that plane, World Trade Center is always trying to pull strings.

The most objectionable element of World Trade Center is the portrayal of Marine Kames. We first see him sitting before a huge crucifix, where he tells someone that god has given him special gifts. Then we see him getting a haircut. In this scene he’s wild-eyed, like he’s enjoying the chaos that is unfolding. But later, after turning up at Ground Zero to help out, and after talking to a rescue working about all the dust, he says, “It’s as though God put up a screen of smoke to prevent us from seeing something we are not yet ready to see.” What now? If someone spoke to me like that, I’d think they were fucking insane. (By the way, wasn't it nice of god to give us this screen of smoke so that the rescue workers could get cancer and all other kinds of health-related problems a few years down the line. What a guy!) And then later on, when he finds the two trapped men, he allays their fears by telling them, in his best psycho GI Joe voice, that he won’t leave them: “We’re Marines; you are our mission”. Even when he’s helping people he can’t help but sound like a massive tool.

But most heinously of all, there’s a moment near the end when he phones his workplace and tells them he won’t be coming in. “We’re going to need some good men out there to avenge this.” And we then find out that the real person did two tours of Iraq. Erm, excuse me, but that’s the wrong country. And anyway, for a film that is supposed to be so apolitical it doesn’t send a particularly great message. Yeah, some wankers killed lots of people so let’s go into this country that had nothing to do with it and, despite the fact that the country is completely boned because some nutjob is running it, bone it even more. Who cares if a few thousand civilians get caught in the crossfire? Oh, wait…

Something else I wasn’t particularly keen on were the flashbacks the two trapped men experienced. Bathed in ethereal light, they played like sentimentalised bullshit. Yes I know we tend to take memories and make them better than they are, and I can well imagine that if you’re dying you’re going to sentimentalise them to an even greater extent, but it just doesn’t work in a cinematic context. I’m sure I would have responded more to these scenes if they were played and filmed more naturally.

Indeed, the most powerful scene for me by far was the scene where Cage’s wife talks to a black woman. The black lady says that her son operated the elevator in the Trade Center. She then says that the last time they spoke she’d shouted at her son for being late for dinner. She then breaks down. This scene is so much more powerful than all the rest because there’s no bullshit about it. There are no tricks; it doesn’t feel fake. Who cares about nutjob Marines praying to Jeebus for glorious vengeance? The real story that day was that a couple of thousand people got killed; people with friends and families. It’s the pain of those friends and families that matters.

But that leads me to one of the reasons why United 93 is so much more powerful than World Trade Center. In United 93 you watch the whole film knowing that the people on the screen are going to die. In World Trade Center, though, you watch the film knowing that the two guys are going to live. So one film takes the tragedy and confronts it head on and the other kind of brushes everything under the carpet. Yes the story in World Trade Center is worth telling, and yes the work of the rescue workers should be celebrated, but they deserve a better film than this, one that doesn’t pussyfoot around as much.

And I have to say, having seen a documentary about the men portrayed in this film, that their experiences were a lot more powerful there than they are here. There’s quite a bit of bad acting going on in this film (in a couple of instances Cage’s line delivery apes William Shatner’s) and curiously enough, there’s little drama (I have no idea how Stone did it, but he managed to drain all the life out of the situation). So the emotion that is generated when the two guys are found feels kind of undeserved. We’re caught up because we feel empathy for the real people – the filmmakers, though, have earned nothing.

The only person who really comes out of the film with any credit is Maggie Gyllenhaal. Her performance is probably the only one that feels like it could bear some relation to a real person. Her character is both strong and vulnerable, and she has the energy and life that everyone else is so sorely lacking. Plus she’s wonderful in the scene where she’s re-united with her husband. She plays the pregnant wife of one of the Port Authority policemen and they argue over what name they’re going to call their daughter – it has a spontaneity and warmth that isn’t present in many other scenes.

But despite everyone's best intentions, I have to say that the film as a whole is a failure. It says nothing about good and evil, and it doesn’t serve as a fitting tribute to the rescue workers or the people that died. It’s a saccharine, Hollywoodised view of 9/11, and we need that like we need a hole in the head.

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