Movie Column: 'World Trade Center' Is Real, Not Oliver Stoned

August 9th, 2006 3:52 PM

The fifth anniversary of the September 11 hijacking attacks on America by al-Qaeda may present a challenge to our memory as a country. How much do we remember, and how much have we forgotten? No one truly expected that the national unity in grief and anger on that day would last forever. But that unity is bound together again in the new Oliver Stone-directed movie "World Trade Center."

This comes as something of a surprise with the name of Stone attached. But believe it. This movie brings 9/11 back to life all its horrific immediacy in the lives of New York Port Authority cops and their families. This film is not political. This film transports us back into that day when Democrats and Republicans sang "God Bless America" on the Capitol steps, when the whole nation felt the pain of that gaping, burning hole in the center of Manhattan, the disastrous gash in the Pentagon, and the heroic downing of jihadist hopes in a Pennsylvania field.

Hollywood isn’t that good at making heroic movies any more, but this one is unashamed to find its heroes in the humblest places, all finding their way simply by trying to do the right thing on a tragic day with a very clear mission: who can we get out alive? We see not only heroic policemen and firemen, doctors and nurses, loving mothers and fathers, but a former Marine and a lapsed paramedic struggling through drug rehab.

But most of all, we see two policemen trapped in the rubble, living through great waves of pain and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, surviving with great love for their wives and their children. Many Hollywood films tempt us away from the bonds of marriage and parenthood, but many also try to remind us that the mundane details of life, of demanding work schedules and demanding parental burdens, should not blind us to the bonds of love we have forged. Based on a very real crisis, few films succeed as well with this message as "World Trade Center" does.

It’s a blessing that the Hollywood movies on 9/11, both this film and "United 93," have been so aggressively realistic in their depictions of this day, based strongly on the oral history that survivors have provided. This movie drives home how chaotically, dramatically uninformed people at the center of the tragedy were as it unfolded.

It’s because these films are so real, that the characters feel so real, with the real lives of Americans today. This film treats religious faith as a serious part of American lives, which Hollywood rarely or barely acknowledges. On this grave day, people pray in churches and kneel with rosaries to find spiritual guidance in the morass. People unsure of whether they will live or die pray the "Our Father" in the fiery collapse of buildings, and have fiery visions of Jesus and his sacred heart as they drift in and out of consciousness.

Perhaps more surprisingly, this film treats its real-life Marine character with great seriousness, although in a dose of realism, his flinty-eyed talk of God on the scene of the disaster causes one rescue worker to call him a "nut job." One of the only light moments in the film is when the Marine introduces himself as "Staff Sergeant Karnes," and a fellow rescuer asks for something less formal, a nickname. "Staff Sergeant," he replies. You might have expected the Marine to play the usual role of unglued gung-ho soldier, but this man’s first-instinct declaration that we were at war, and that he felt needed to bring a response to terrorism are portrayed without mockery of any kind.

This was hardly expected from the Oliver Stone of "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." The overall tone of this movie was hardly expected from the Oliver Stone of "JFK," who might have been expected to make the 9/11 tragedy a vast D.C. conspiracy. But to Stone and everyone at Paramount Pictures, we should all say thank you for giving us this gift of memory.