Does Stone’s World Trade Center change the discussion?
Recently, Paramount Pictures rang up the ol’ F News office and asked me if I’d like to phone interview Oliver Stone, along with media representatives from several other schools. Now, I’ve interviewed B-list celebs before: Howie Mandel, Miss America (1990), Ed McMahon, some girl from a show called California Dreams which aired briefly in the early ’90s, just to name a few, but never an actual contributor to culture. I had three days to view his movie World Trade Center (starring Nicolas Cage, his mustache, and Michael Peña), internalize the drama, and spit out a question or two.
I biked on over to Lincoln Park (one of five places the movie was playing in Chicago—unless I wanted to trek out to the suburbs where it was playing en masse), and caught the 10:10 Sunday showing right before Monday morning’s interview. The theater wasn’t full. I didn’t assume it would be. 10 or 12 young Latino men were scattered throughout the theater. There was a family in the back: Dad, Mom, maybe a six year old kid.
Prior to the movie, but after the dancing popcorn and soda pop, fun trivia questions about Brad Pitt miscellany and pleads for silent cell phones, the lights dimmed and the previews started. Preview one (another Nicolas Cage flick), preview two (Babel, American tragedy, war-related flick), and then a recruitment video for the Marines. Oh, the elite Marines: the tough, the proud, the avengers, the very handsome avengers.
“How do you prepare to send your art off into the world, not knowing what context it will be viewed in?” is the question I asked. I had three minutes to have a conversation with Oliver Stone. I haven’t been schooled in how to do a three minute interview, but I’ve seen lots of White House press events on C-SPAN.
Oliver Stone, aware that I attend SAIC, commented that I know as well as he does, that there is nothing one can do to control the context in which one views art. Or movies. If they are the same. Which in this case is debatable at best. He laughed. He thought that my viewing his movie as a commercial for the Marines was funny, and then he asked where I saw the movie. I told him Lincoln Park, Chicago.
He assured me that there was nothing he could do about any of that, that he was just out to make a movie, because he’s a dramatist and not a political film maker (did he forget about JFK? or Nixon? or Platoon?), that once he’s done with his dramatist work, the studio’s got this chunk of filmic bliss, and the only artistic control he has from that point on is the editing down for television, which I imagine is already in the works.
My time was up, time to move on to another question from another student journalist. “Nicholas Cage was SOOOOOO good in this movie, Mr. Stone. What was it like to work with him?”
For those who haven’t seen Mr. Stone’s Wild Ride just yet (and I imagine you haven’t or Paramount Pictures wouldn’t have called me), let me give you a plot run down: Police run into World Trade Center to save people. Towers collapse. Three policemen are alive in the elevator shaft. Stuff keeps collapsing. One policeman dies. The remaining two spend half the movie trapped under the rubble talking about their families and keeping each other alive through storytelling. Even though they are colleagues, it turns out they don’t know the first thing about each other. Oliver Stone World Trade CenterBut just when we think it’s hopeless, an ex-Marine who had completed his tours, now an accountant, sits in a church committing himself to “avenge” what has been done to New York City. He leaves his job, heads up to NYC, and when all the crews go home at night because it’s too dangerous to continue looking for people, he stays, eventually joined by another rogue marine, a two-man search team, and discovers the two cops underground, appearing to Peña’s character in a hallucination, as Jesus. The two policemen get out alive. Pepper church scenes, Bush sound bites, and country music throughout, and you’ve got a pretty clear picture of Mr. Stone’s Wild Ride.
There are a few problems with Oliver Stone’s tribute to 9/11. From a literary standpoint the dialogue was more appropriate for an after school special than for a big cinematic release. (For example, take the Marine’s assessment of the tower of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center hole, “Looks like God made a curtain with the smoke, shielding us from what we’re not ready to see.”) Given that the story is based on real people and a real event, the clean, trite, melodramatic dialogue of the families of the victims, especially that of the hero of the movie, was insulting, cringe inducing. So easy to digest, it rendered itself indigestible. For those interested in accuracy, there are many problems to explore. Among them: the second rogue Marine who helped rescue the two policemen from the rubble was portrayed as a white man in the movie, though he is actually a black man in real life. The two marine heroes of the film declined to be involved in the making of World Trade Center.
Stone’s movie adaptation of the events of 9/11 insists on the humanity and love that he believes is inherent in Americans. Upper-class, white, gym-going, suburban women clutch and weep all over overweight African American women with ease. And the movie ends with Nicholas Cage’s character preaching about how 9/11 was bad and evil, but people are essentially good, and look, we did some nice things for each other, we rediscovered “the goodness we forgot could exist,” we had a picnic, you know, just relax and be nice to one another, like we do. Indeed, people can be nice when everyone is in a moment of crisis, but since irony and cynicism did not, in fact, die on 9/11 (despite the media reports), Stone must know his message might be met with rolling eyes. I actually found myself hoping, while Stone crammed hope down my throat, that someone had stolen my bike wheel while I was in the theater, so that I could get on the conference call with Oliver Stone and ask him where the humanity and love of Americans was then.
All this is not to say that the movie wasn’t successful in some ways. I did cry, though I feel I must admit that I also cry at the evening news. The scenes where the policemen were trapped under the rubble were successfully uncomfortable and claustrophobic, and the lack of overt political commentary did allow for viewers to attempt to connect with characters, though I doubt anyone came into that theater without their own personal and political baggage.
The intentional absence of political commentary made nostalgic news clips and sound bites used in the movie somewhat jarring. During one particular montage, I got hung up on a news clip of George W. yammering on about the evil and terror and how we’re going to get “Them,” and I found myself wondering how Stone approached picking that particular sound-bite, if he continues to insist on his apolitical stance.
Oliver Stone told the New York Times, “It seems to me that the event was mythologized by both political sides, into something that they used for political gain,” he says. “And I think one of the benefits of this movie is that it reminds us of what actually happened that day, in a very realistic sense.” I don’t know that we do need to be reminded so violently and at such great length about what happened that day. Doesn’t my President conjure up images of the towers crashing into the ground every time his rating slip below 40 percent? And I don’t know how much I buy Stone’s claim that his movie is realistic; what I experienced was a Disney-fied, whitewashed, made for TV movie about two survivors, and the glory of being a Marine.
Stone’s movie ends with one of my favorite filmic devices: The “where are they now” sentences, interspersed with scenes of good times, hugs, and children.
The two survivors are recovering and feel good and are with their families, and, you know, it turns out the former marine reenlisted, and served two tours of duty in Iraq. Iraq, where Osama bin Laden isn’t, and where we’re currently at war, and the troops aren’t coming home any time soon, and where we’re experiencing some of the highest numbers of casualties currently, even though victory was declared forever ago. To send me out of the theater with that taste in my mouth—to think about that hero marine going off to Iraq TWICE to “avenge” what happened on 9/11, to acknowledge that Oliver Stone didn’t throw a line at the end of the movie about how Osama bin Laden is still hiding in caves in Afghanistan wheeling around his dialysis machine—that screams politics to me. This missing sentence insists on the politics of his film, despite Stone’s alliance with nothing more than drama, and defiance of his political leanings. If that’s not a political movie, I don’t know what is.