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.