There’s not so much an Oliver Stone shot as there is an Oliver Stone rhythm, and if we’re to pinpoint an exact reason for World Trade Center’s ultimate failure, this is the doorstep at which to lay the blame. Stone’s film hinges upon a hollow extended conversation, rendered via a poorly visualized series of chiaroscuro close-ups, between Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) as they lie trapped beneath the rubble of the fallen Twin Towers. To say that the close-up is not Stone’s forte is an understatement, but he’s gotten away with it in the past because his films, whatever their flaws, moved: with purpose, if not always with precision. Stone’s talents (and his occasional profundity) lie in juxtaposition and bombast, in a breathless, ragged montage. His depthless canvases are prime examples of “what you see is what you get,” and though this results in a fair share of ideological bullshit it is also, more often than not, exhilarating. His masterpiece is probably the little heralded Any Given Sunday, a football-as-war film that has the audacity (and clarity) to pose Cameron Diaz next to a horse-hung black football player (not to mention foregrounding an elderly Charlton Heston before a widescreen-televised distortion of his shackled, bare-chested Ben-Hur).
No such Cameron and the Cock aesthetics in World Trade Center, but then respectful solemnity, it seems, is the new black. Let the pundits yammer on about Stone’s rehabilitation. He’s merely catering to fashion, courting the very folks who would attack him because of his controversies (and let’s be honest, if at this point you find anything Stone does truly controversial, you need to get out more), which is not to say that this deathly dull work-for-hire lacks for a few striking passages. As has been remarked elsewhere, the prelude to the towers’ collapse is masterful. Stone is in full control of his orchestrations here as he captures the mundane routines of Manhattan’s multicultural hoi polloi - even the Port Authority Jackie Gleason statuem has his part to play in the proceedings. When American Airlines Flight 11 hits the first tower, Stone’s technique falters slightly: his insistence on visualizing the plane as an ominous, half-glimpsed shadow (a failed attempt at transposing myth onto a too-concretely visualized reality) warns of the superficial reductiveness to come. But he regains his footing for a spell, long enough to offer a stunning portrait of 9/11’s confusion: people don’t run to the rescue, they stumble along like zombies, covered in ash and blood, while off-screen sounds hint at a hellish unknown. Jimeno’s strange interlude with a shell-shocked World Trade Center officer (Tom Wright) is when the sequence, and the movie, peak. Then it all (fact and fiction both) comes tumbling down.
The early moments of what becomes the bleeding, vacant heart of World Trade Center hold some promise. Awakening within a mass grave of dirt, fire, and twisted metal, McLoughlin and Jimeno might be the protagonists of an Argento giallo, but Stone quickly settles into a narcoleptic rhythm, groggily cross-cutting between the men as they trade biographies, pop-cultural references, and homosocial admissions of love. The sense of claustrophobia that Stone so clearly wants to achieve is undone by his decision to intercut the outside world into McLoughlin and Jimeno’s private realities (a similar problem afflicts Paul Greengrass’ officious United 93) and it is here that the director unwittingly reveals his film’s pandering and, yes Virginia, political bias. From this point forward Stone’s gaze (all-inclusive at the outset) spirals downward into irreversible myopia. His portrayal of McLoughlin and Jimeno’s families (the former headlined by a frighteningly contact-lensed Maria Bello) is a hopeless patriarchal muddle. Stone accepts the received wisdom that 9/11 was an attack on America as opposed to an attack on American soil (a crucial distinction). He shoots blindly in the dark for poetic evocation, but for every hit (as when Jimeno’s wife, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, engages in a deeply felt act of defiance against a mocking red stop light) there are an increasing number of misses (as in the wishy-washy portrayal of Michael Shannon’s Staff Sergeant Karnes, a former Marine who leaves his accounting job - after a thuddingly staged religious revelation - to offer a stoic hand at Ground Zero).
By the time a bottled-water toting Jesus Christ appears to Jimeno, Stone’s film has completely derailed, and in an unfortunately less-than-spectacular fashion. It’s telling of his artistry that Stone has Jimeno announce the sheer ridiculousness of an Evian (or Aquafina?) bearing messiah, and equally telling of his faults that Jimeno goes on to explain the visual metaphor, effectively neutering its impact. (To this end, Staff Sergeant Karnes’ description of the clouds at Ground Zero - resembling divine veils concealing what God does not want us to see - becomes Stone’s unconscious self-critique.) World Trade Center rejects cinema’s potentialities for spiritual exaltation, settling instead for a homiletic, cynical moralism. McLoughlin’s closing voiceover, in which he authoritatively speaks of the way 9/11 revealed all the forgotten good in humanity, is the height of presumptuousness, the moment a personal story forcibly becomes Everyman’s story, making light of each individual’s eternal struggle through virtue and vice. Stone’s religiosity is all a pose - how else to explain the botched ascension staging when McLoughlin is finally raised through the rubble towards a blinding blue heaven, only to find himself the sloppy-seconds recipient of the standing ovation roundelay from Titanic?