Ground Zero Heroes: A Review of World Trade Center

In the days after September 11, some cultural commentators foresaw an end of an era of irony and cynicism, the death of a jaded, postmodern culture in which nothing could be taken seriously.

Wholesomely All-American

Writing for Time magazine, Roger Rosenblatt declared,

For some 30 years — roughly as long as the Twin Towers were upright — the good folks in charge of America’s intellectual life have insisted that nothing was to be believed in or taken seriously. Nothing was real. With a giggle and a smirk, our chattering classes — our columnists and pop culture makers — declared that detachment and personal whimsy were the necessary tools for an oh-so-cool life…. The ironists, seeing through everything, made it difficult for anyone to see anything.

Perhaps not quite coincidentally, for most of that same thirty years, Oliver Stone has been making movies steeped in jaded cynicism and skepticism, if not always irony. From Platoon to Wall Street to JFK to Natural Born Killers, ruthlessness, corruption and decadence are the order of the day in Stone’s world.

You could say it’s ironic, then, that World Trade Center — as unabashed a tribute to heroism and human decency as Hollywood has produced in years — should be directed by Stone. Stone is personally hostile to patriotism and nationalism, which he has called “the two most evil forces that I know of in this century or in any century.” Yet World Trade Center is as wholesomely all-American as the prologue of Born on the Fourth of July — the key difference being that this time Stone isn’t setting up a house of cards in order to knock it down.

When three NYC cops step forward to volunteer to rush into the crippled towers and try to rescue civilians, the film isn’t out to debunk their naiveté, but to honor their courage. When ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), surveying the smoking ruins of Ground Zero, declares that “It’s gonna take a lot to avenge this,” it isn’t the blind rage of a bloodthirsty zealot, but the grim resolve of a righteous warrior.

“9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of,” one character reflects in an epilogue set two years after the fact. “The evil, yeah, sure. But it also brought out a goodness we forgot could exist…. It’s important for us to talk about that good, to remember, because I saw a lot of it that day.”

Based on a True Story

Based on the true story of police officers John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno (Nicholas Cage and Michael Peña), who were almost the last survivors to be pulled from the smoking rubble of the Twin Towers, World Trade Center is so doggedly decent and uplifting that a number of critics have suggested that it feels less like the work of an Oliver Stone than a Ron Howard.

Perhaps it is even reminiscent of a particular Ron Howard movie: Backdraft, Howard’s 1991 tribute to the heroism of big-city first-responders who rush toward disaster scenes while everyone else rushes away. An even more exact parallel might be a post-9/11 film that has also been compared to Backdraft: Ladder 49, starring John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix in a story about a rescue effort involving an injured firefighter trapped in a burning warehouse.

Like Ladder 49, World Trade Center tells its story against a backdrop of Christian and Catholic faith. Crucifixes, crosses, a Bible and other religious trappings are in evidence, and a Catholic character actually has a vision-like experience of Jesus Christ modeled on the Sacred Heart image.

Also like Ladder 49 (and Backdraft), World Trade Center has its share of melodrama and cliché. Characters have lines like “I finally figured out the only thing I’m good at is helping people” and talk about “people taking care of each other, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do.”

Sometimes this kind of writing can evoke unaffected sincerity; other times it seems merely trite, perhaps reflecting the inexperience of first-time feature screenwriter Andrea Berloff. A flashback shows Jimeno and his pregnant wife Alison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) snuggling in bed, playfully debating whether to name their unborn daughter Olivia or Alyssa. Then Will winds up trapped beneath the fallen towers, and neither he nor Alison knows if they’ll ever see the other again. Sure enough, before you can say “The Gift of the Magi,” Alison, who originally liked Olivia, switches to Alyssa, while Will, who wanted Alyssa, does his best to leave his wife a message urging her to choose Olivia.

World Trade Center includes some striking images and moments. As the police rush toward Ground Zero, they are engulfed in a blizzard of office paper pouring from the gaping wounds in the towers. Anonymous evacuees drift silently past the advancing police, some covered in dust or streaked with blood.

Alarming groans from the building above as the police proceed through the main concourse foreshadow the disaster they can hardly imagine. Then there’s a striking moment toward the end of the film when, after nearly 24 hours of imprisonment at the epicenter of the worst terrorist attack in US history and nearly 12 hours of rescue efforts, McLoughlin becomes one of the last people in the world to learn what actually happened to the World Trade Center.

In the Traditional Mode

But World Trade Center is more a sentimental melodrama than the story of an event. It rushes through the suspense and logistics of the first act in order to spend as much time as possible in the hole with McLoughlin and Jimenez and in the homes of their families. Where Paul Greengrass’s brilliant United 93 crafted a documentary-like anatomy of events without presuming to get inside people’s heads or explain actions or motivations, World Trade Center is a more conventional Hollywood film, with dramatic dialogue, characters following clearly plotted arcs, and a swelling soundtrack to reinforce the mood.

It’s also worth noting that United 93 focused on the one subplot from that day of infamy that was in any way a victory against the terrorists. Every passenger on that flight died, yes — but their actions prevented the hijackers from reaching their intended target in Washington, DC.

World Trade Center tells a story with more traditionally heroic protagonists and a formally happier ending, but it is also arguably less inspirational. That these brave men walked willingly into the smoking towers is laudable, certainly; that they survived is a veritable miracle. But what they survived was an unmitigated disaster, an absolute triumph of evil. By contrast, what happened on that field in Pennsylvania was also a tragedy, but a victory as well.

I’m grateful for every one of the score of survivors pulled from the ruins of Ground Zero in that first 24 hours. But I’m more grateful for the resistance of the passengers of Flight 93. I’m gratified by the readiness with which ordinary Americans grasped and responded in kind to the previously unimaginable atrocity in which they found themselves, depriving the terrorists of the advantage of surprise that they would never again be able to use in this way.

This is not to say that stories of Ground Zero aren’t worth telling, or that World Trade Center doesn’t work at all, in a Hallmark Channel sort of way. Cage’s familiar screen presence recedes effectively into the role of McLoughlin, and Peña is even better as rookie Jimeno. Gyllenhaal is disarmingly brittle and disconnected as Alison, while Maria Bello gives a moving performance as McLoughlin’s wife Donna, and gets one of the movie’s most affecting scenes with a grieving mother (Viola Davis, very effective in a small part).

Is it enough? When United 93 opened, the question was first raised whether it’s “too soon” for 9/11 movies. I don’t think it’s “too soon” for a film like United 93, which is riveting without making an entertainment of its subject. World Trade Center, though, feels more like “just a movie.” Is it “too soon” for a movie like that? No one can presume to answer that question for anyone else, but World Trade Center raises the question for me in a way that United 93 didn’t.

(c) 2006 Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Steven D. Greydanus is a film critic for the National Catholic Register and appears weekly on Ave Maria radio. His website offers in-depth reviews of both contemporary and older films, evaluating them for moral and spiritual worth as well as artistic and entertainment value.

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