MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

World Trade Center Movie Review

Years ago, when I ever so briefly worked in Market Research for a TV network, we measured people’s feelings about a show by having them push one of two buttons, depending if they felt good or bad as each moment of the show passed.

Watching World Trade Center, I had a similarly distinct way of measuring my reaction. But here, my feelings were measured in tears.

These tears were never jerked out by the movie. They fell of their own volition, in scene after scene after scene. World Trade Center is not the Feel Good Movie of the Year, but it is the Feel Something Movie of the Year (at least the year so far).

The storyline is simple enough. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know it. A bunch of Port Authority police go into World Trade Center Building 5 on September 11, 2001 just before the second plane hits. Who, if anyone, will come out?

Even after seeing the powerful opening 25 minutes of the film from Cannes, I was not prepared for how the movie evolved into a story about individuals. Screenwriter Andrea Berloff and Oliver Stone, who must get a lot of credit for the text as so much of the film is visual, took the Apollo 13 route. The event is historic. The people are human. And with due respect to that Oscar nominee, they did a much more profound and intense job here. Perhaps it is because the landscape is not four men fighting for life, but thousands whose lives and deaths were determined in less than 24 hours. (As I learned today, only 20 people were pulled out of the rubble alive.) But as beautifully crafted as the families of the Apollo astronauts were in that film – and even more so, really, in The Right Stuff, which set the standard – the experience of these people, waiting to find out whether their loved ones were dead or alive, is something we all experienced on that day. Some knew they had friends and family on the scene. Millions of others – like me and, I’m sure, many of you – just had to wait and see, left hanging for many hours as the whole thing played over and over and over on CNN or the networks or wherever.

Once we are down in the rubble with the police at the center of the story, every noise, every fireball, every piece of the building crashing around them inside or outside of the building has an painfully familiar feel. Stone and Berloff chose not to give us a clear clock or to literalize anything much (a little on the peripheries) to offer big moments. We don’t need them. When there is a second collapse around the men, we feel the clock. As day turns to night, we feel the time. The people on the inside of the building know exactly what people in that position would know and the people on the outside know exactly as much or as little as they would know. There is even a “that’s not right” moment of dialogue late in the movie – which ends up being clarified – that we as an audience know and that the characters involved don’t, and one of the great things about this film is, Stone and editors David Brenner and Julie Monroe don’t feel the need to point it out. It is just real.

The emotional wallop of the film does come in throbbing fits of FEEL IT. It comes from the small, personal, human places where we all live. It is in the eyes of our children, the small regrets, the unfinished work around the house… It isn’t even profoundly woeful regret. It’s not “I never reconciled with my father.” At the center of this story are two men with families, still with their wives, relatively happy… real men and women who don’t have everything, but have enough to live with. They are America, or at least our hope of what America is.

This is one of the least “Oliver Stone” Oliver Stone movies not because of a missing visual signature, but because it is profoundly lacking in cynicism. And while you may be bathed in tears while watching it, the movie is not. And when you realize how petty everyone isn’t being… how whinny the film never gets… how strong the players are… that’s when you realize that it is a movie and not a docudrama. None of the characters is perfect. But they each have a voice that is loud and clear and steeped in the humanity of that day, a humanity shared by almost every American and most people in the world.

Stone is surprisingly non-judgmental about Middle America and even religion in the film. Stone has always flirted and danced with religion in his films, but here he has two key characters who are clearly religious. And they are allowed that faith without question. If Paramount wanted to go to the churches and do the Passion of the Christ sell there, they would not be out of line. Faith here is assimilated, accepted, and not sold.

The casting is pretty perfect in the film. Nic Cage hits every note just right, in a role that is physically limited for most of the film, and in which he barely gets to emote with his eyes because of the natural lighting of the scenes. Michael Pena, who was in both Million Dollar Baby and Crash, but is still the least known of the many ethnic character actors who play cops in the film, scores big, playing a man who is in some ways small, but is in other ways as big as all outdoors. Maria Bello is almost unrecognizable in blue contacts as Cage’s wife and brings a lot of range to one character in short bursts. Maggie Gyllenhaal is the more emotional of the wives, and manages to size herself down from the usual urban-styled performances that have made her famous to be completely believable and profoundly emotional as the wife of a Port Authority cop.

But the actor’s rolodex that Stone and the casting team here hit on was endlessly, and happily, surprising and every time there was that little jolt of recognition, it was only seconds before the actor became seamless with the part. Particularly outstanding are Donna Murphy, Patti D’Arbanville, Jay Hernandez, Peter McRobbie, Michael Shannon as Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes, an unrecognizable Stephen Dorff, Frank Whaley, Jude Ciccolella, and Tom Wright, who gives a killer kick in a scene that runs less than a minute. And last, but in no way least, an actress whose presence always promises brilliance and emotional fireworks, Viola Davis.

But the performances are very down to earth, which may be a problem come Oscar time. This is a great movie that doesn’t milk its great moments… which is probably the main reason it is a great movie.

The score, by Craig Armstrong, is remarkable. What’s odd is that it feels very even through the whole movie, but steady and powerful. It’s a very important part of setting the tempo for the film.

Gail Berman deserves a lot of credit for this film getting greenlit and coming out as well as it did. Who knows what will come for Ms. Berman in the future, but as her first greenlight, this will stand a major achievement for her, as it would in any career.

The tightrope on this movie was incredibly thin. Falling was more a promise than a question. But much to my delight, Stone & Co. walk it just about perfectly. The film never forgets the thousands who died, the tragically unhappy stories, the every day nature of heroism, the entirety of the families and not just the movie-friendly. World Trade Center never seeks to preach or to politicize. That day, for Stone and for most people, was bigger than the politics. Like the day of Hiroshima or a year in a concentration camp or the slaughter of the American Indian, it might just demand a man who is as clear about the misplaced power used in places like Vietnam to open his heart fully to a tragedy that is so simply human.

As you might have guessed, I think World Trade Center is the first serious contender to be nominated for Best Picture this year. I hate the release date. It really feels to me like a November movie. I wanted the sharp sting of cold air on my face as I walked out into the street. I wanted a hot drink and a long conversation with a fire crackling nearby. This is a heavy, heavy movie to be hitting America in August.

But the weight I felt on my chest walking out of the theater was much like the weight I felt after Munich, after Amadeus, after Million Dollar Baby, after In The Bedroom, after The Pianist, after In America. It was the weight of something that touched me in a deep, almost inexplicable way, greater than the sum of its parts.

This is the movie about which you will ask yourself, “Am I ready for this?” And the answer should be, “yes.” Because the movie bleeds human blood, not any one country’s, not any one story. It is, in the end, a movie about hope as much as it is a movie about loss.

I shed many tears watching the film. I wept for New York. I wept for families contemplating loss. I wept for men facing their mortality. I wept as I recalled the magnitude of that giant gaping wound at the bottom of Manhattan… and once again when Stone reminds, ever so subtly, that even that massive wound is small in the large picture of the world. I wept a lot. Fortunately, only night vision goggle guys were there to see it. I got to feel it.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon