Twenty years ago, I reviewed Oliver Stone’s Platoon and gave it four stars. About a year ago, I saw it on cable and couldn’t believe I’d fallen for it. True, Stone had brought the immediacy and authenticity of personal experience, and few films equal its depiction of combat. But as far as artistic integrity went, Platoon consisted of clichés, platitudes, and a sophomoric allegory that hyped up already loaded material.
IS IT POLITICAL?: No, it’s worse, it’s sentimental.
So I was leery of World Trade Center, especially given Stone’s insistence that this film would not be “political.” If anything, 9/11 has undergone more emotional and political manipulation than Vietnam. An incompetent, hypocritical cabal has usurped power by distorting and exploiting it. But if Stone hasn’t made it political, he’s done worse. He’s made it sentimental. Or “uplifting” or “heartfelt,” as some reviewers will have it. Whatever, the result is emotional pornography not unlike that produced by cable stations when they pump up the “human” angle of catastrophe for higher ratings.
As with most of Stone’s films, the story is true, at least initially. In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in history, stunned Americans clung to the report of two survivors, Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), Port Authority cops trapped under the ruins of the towers who managed to escape while 3000 others were vaporized. But they can’t escape Stone. He transforms them from real people into embodiments of everything noble, lovably flawed, persevering, and normal about American manhood. That’s what happens to survivors and victims and those who suffer and endure the evil policies of others: they become “heroes.”
So Stone ends up with a movie that’s made up partly of stoic victims awaiting rescue and partly of stoic families awaiting news. Again and again McLoughlin’s crusted, long-suffering face tells the plucky, younger Jimeno to hang in there. Don’t fall asleep, they tell each other. (Good advice also for those watching.) Then they swap stories about their wives, who despite being played by two of America’s best actresses, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, are indistinguishable in their stereotyping. We suffer along with those on screen, getting off on the characters’ anguish and fear, tapping into our own recollections of the event (untroubled by doubt as to its causes or consequences), all the while knowing that everything is going to turn out all right. (As opposed to the way we watched Paul Greengrass’s United 93, a somewhat less “uplifting” experience.)
Being one of the most profligate stylists in Hollywood, Stone goes beyond the conventionality of his stark and static set pieces. Rounds from a dead man’s gun are set off by a fire; Jimeno hallucinates an image of Jesus bearing bottled water. Just before the disaster, the silhouette of a low-flying jet passes over the streets like the angel of death; afterward, the gutted towers spew smoke and billions of papers.
But by far the best part of the film is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), the ex-Marine who puts on his fatigues and drives to Ground Zero and through sheer doggedness finds the two trapped cops. He’s a bit of a nut, but with total integrity, so he doesn’t fit anyone’s preconception of “hero.” Stone respects that. When the film’s obvious efforts to exploit the tragedy all fell flat, Karnes’s story moved me. His is the kind of pure-hearted response to disaster that cynical administrations manipulate for political gain and washed-up filmmakers exploit for box-office profit.