I confess: the second thing that went through my mind on September 11, 2001 (after the horror of the moment, of course) was “this will make a great film someday.” I would be mortified by this, except for the fact that I’m sure every member of my generation thought the same thing, if not as soon. Terrible as the day was, I was feeling a kind of thrill. I hadn’t been there for Pearl Harbor (although I did endure Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor), or for Kenedy’s assassination; moments when the country was instantly unified, if only for awhile. But I was here for a story that would be told and retold through many mediums. Already, I was starting to see the folk heroes that would emerge, the dramatic stories that would be reenacted – and probably embellished – for decades to come, and the moments, poorly filmed in life, that would look so spectacular done in a studio.
Apparently, director Oliver Stone had similar thoughts.
If this sounds terrible, consider the millions of solid citizens who praised the frank depiction of the gore in Saving Private Ryan, or the millions who lined up to see Braveheart again and again. If it makes a difference that these stories happened longer ago, consider that it takes about four to five years for a film to develop from concept to finished product. In the first five years since 9/11 we had already seen two movies about it (Flight 93 was released Jan. 30 of 2006).
It has now been three years since Stone’s World Trade Center was released and I first wrote this article. During that time we have seen September 11 return to its status as just another box on the calendar. American culture has gone back to infighting and second-guessing government (Stone himself directed an anti-war ad in April of 2007). This has to raise questions in the alert reader because there are dates far older – December 7, 1941 for instance – that Americans still observe every year. One has to wonder if an ably directed film could reignite American reverence for September 11 (if not what we learned from it).
Needless to say, however, that wasn’t what WTC was intended to do. Stone intended it as a tribute, probably due the recency of the event. As a tribute, the film delivers. It introduces two folk heros, Port Authority Officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and William Jimeno (Michael Pena), who spend most of the movie under a ton of rubble. Probably the best thing about it is that if anyone who was involved with planning the attacks ever sees it, and they probably will, they will be very disappointed. The jihadis behind the attacks get no attention whatsoever. The crash into the North Tower is heralded only by the shadow of a plane swooping across a building and a muffled explosion. The rest of the film follows several main characters through the rescue efforts. In short, every frame is devoted to the good, the valiance and the victory I hope we all remember from that day.
Decades will come and go, the pain brought on by that day will lessen and the grieving families will be names in dusty historical records. As the subject gets less sensitive, so will the movies. We’ll see body parts fly ala Saving Private Ryan and we’ll get to know the villains. But for now World Trade Center focuses on what should be focused on.
As McLothlen says at the end of World Trade Center, “Nine eleven showed us what human beings are capable of – the evil, sure. But also the good. People looking out for each other, for no reason other than that it was the right thing to do. It’s important to remember that. And to talk about it.”