I know. I know. I know. It’s been a month. Shut up.
I briefly toyed with the idea of watching World Trade Center around the second week in September last year. My assumption was that it would somehow pay respect to a terrible event in American history.
Waiting was a great decision.
Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center marks… what, the eighth time Nicolas Cage has played a character named “John” or some Jack-related variant as New York officer John McLoughlin. That number goes up even higher if you add “Joe” to the mix. And once again, Cage is filling in for someone else, as Stone’s alleged original choices were Mel Gibson, George Clooney, or Kevin Costner.
World Trade Center is a great example of how to ruin a pretty easy story to tell. I want to be clear here, though: The terrorist attacks on 9/11 was terrible and ripped apart thousands of families forever. Obviously. World Trade Center is just as obviously centered around those attacks and thus its disadvantage — tiptoeing around the events of a national tragedy just five years after — is also its advantage as a dramatic centerpiece: We know that people are going to die. While World Trade Center is respectful to the event by not recreating too much of that day, apart from the shadow of the first plane and some recreated tower shots. However, Oliver Stone and writer Andrea Berloff remain convinced that “9/11 movie” is the same as drama, that people reacting to tragedy is the same as plot mechanics. World Trade Center operates under the assumption that “this is sad, so be sad about these sad characters we’re showing you” and then proceeds to thrash about for another 90 minutes.
Berloff’s script is an adaptation of the accounts of two former Port Authority officers who did in fact help evacuate the buildings: the aforementioned John McLoughlin and Michael Peña’s Will Jimeno. Aside from loosely recreating the morning of September 11th, 2001, the bulk of Berloff’s script switches between McLoughlin and Jimeno, who become trapped under falling rubble as they help evacuate the twoers, and the frantic searches of their wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, respectively. “Their wives” sounds reductive, and it is, but not on my part. I’ve no doubt these two women were completely distraught over the safety and livelihood of their brave husbands. In real life. But perhaps Berloff should’ve considered a different focus for her script, as it affords the two actresses little to do short of playing feckless, apparent homemakers fawning over their significant others; they’re baby-ovens and laundry-folders who fail the Bechdel test right out of the gate.
World Trade Center shifts between its characters through a disarming number of fades, and the effect is schizophrenic in that those fades constantly suggest significant lapses in time, even when Stone cross-cuts to a simultaneous event. It’s a technical piece of storytelling that seems trivial but makes a great difference when used so recklessly. Forget that Berloff doesn’t know how to balance anguished wives with Jimeno and McLoughlin’s survival dialogue; Stone makes things worse. As a word to the wise, shooting at a higher frame rate and cutting out non-diegetic sound do not automatically create great drama. The constant fades and grating slow-motion don’t add historical weight. They make a trudgingly-paced adaptation a nigh unbearable two hour movie. They make a not-so-compelling story unwieldy, like a raconteur on a Robitussin trip. Not that I’d know anything about that kind of thing.
World Trade Center also presents New York City’s middle class as an interior slice of suburban nobility and wisdom. Everyone knows everyone else, and they’re all united in their noble, wise middle-class-iness. When Marine Corps volunteers (including a then-unknown Michael Shannon) discover McLoughlin and Jimeno beneath the tower debris, McLoughlin is placed on an oxygen machine, and World Trade Center uses this as an opportunity for an overwrought conversation between Bello and Cage via unconscious dream sequence. It’s a heavy-handed chunk of Levittown-styled nuclear family schmoozing, and its aim is unclear aside from giving McLoughlin a “reason” to live. Again, Berloff is adapting a story about real people, so maybe McLoughlin really did argue with his imagined wife about redecorating the house. Maybe he really did live for civil service, for his family, for wantin to take his kid to see the Yankees whoop the A’s in the playoffs. I don’t know, and in terms of good filmmaking it doesn’t matter. It’s no excuse to tread water in a movie that probably never needed to get made in the first place — really par for the course on Oliver Stone’s filmography these days.
There’s little room for any character development here, as Berloff would have to cram several epiphanies inside a 24-hour story rooted in history and raw emotion. Luckily, Cage still finds ways to insert his crazy anyway. It’s tough to pin down exactly what he’s doing with his New York accent; sometimes it’s convincing, but more often that not it sits somewhere between extremes of “drunk New Jersey truck driver heckling Derek Jeter” and “standup comedian who’s never met a New Yorker doing his best approximation of a New Yorker.” Cage also scrounges up some anguished screams of torture. They’re not on some serious Wicker Man levels, but it’s enough to remind you that Nicolas Cage once starred in a 9/11 drama. According to the occasionally unreliable iMDb “Trivia” section, Cage spent hours in a sensory-deprivation tank to prepare for the role’s claustrophobia. Please let that be true.
There’s a few pretty, even haunting shots of New York City here, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is surprisingly competent in the nothing role she has here, but Stone tries to take his contemplative imagery and spread it out over a two hour runtime. On top of that, he gives Berloff’s adaptation more dramatic credit than it probably deserves. I’ve no doubt a better screenplay is probably somewhere inside the real accounts of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, but it isn’t here.
- Usually these pot-shots are reserved for those delinquent Clone Wars reviews, but what Stone and his production team envision as “Sheboygan, WI police officers” is laughably bad. Eager to to do their part in recovering from this American tragedy, a soggy patrolman mans a grill and extends a cooked sausage to a fellow first responder: “WANNA BRATT?” In Los Angeles, there is no “Minnesota” or “Illinois.” We’re all the same.
- “I don’t think you guys realize this, but this country is now at war.” Michael Shannon, before shaving his head at the barber and suiting up.
- Bello and Cage’s weird subconscious conversation: “You can’t leave yet, the kitchen isn’t even finished yet.” “Will you forget about the kitchen for a minute. I’m kinda stuck here.” “Well get unstuck, John.”
* * * * *
Want more Cage? You got it.