Directed by Oliver Stone

One of the most fitting descriptions of Oliver Stone I have ever read concluded that, at bottom, he was “all sledgehammer.” Even when he’s been provocative and relentlessly fascinating, he’s always directed his films with the belief that all demonstrations of restraint and subtlety are best left in the air-conditioned trailer, or for those with more artistic pretensions. Curious, then, that his latest 2×4 to the face, World Trade Center, is being described as “apolitical”, when in fact it just might be the film George W. Bush himself would make if he had a single shred of talent as a filmmaker. Unfortunately, Bush has proven to have no aptitude for anything whatsoever, so he’s left to drunkenly run the country into a ditch of his own design. Stone, meanwhile, has tossed aside the loony conspiracies and feverish speculation for something far more sinister: an overtly religious, jingoistic madhouse of loutish patriotism and teeth-baring revenge. In that sense, it’s the anti-United 93, which worked so brilliantly because it sought nothing more than a presentation of the facts as we knew them. Here are the individuals involved, here’s what they went through — fade to black. It was so slavishly objective, in fact, that it practically became a documentary, and as such elicited more empathy and compassion than any politically-driven film ever could. But while it was concerned with the ordinary, World Trade Center wants to run with the angels, elevating its situations and characters to a status exceeding that of sainthood.

Claiming to be the story of two survivors of the Trade Center collapse, it instead uses these men as symbols of our can-do perseverance in the face of tragedy, which begs the question as to why Americans insist on turning everything into a trite life lesson. The men cease to be real, in fact, the moment they see visions while trapped in the rubble. One, John McLaughlin (Nicolas Cage, who appears to be taking dieting advice from Billy Bob Thornton), sees his wife before him (wearing the same clothes she’s been in all day, even though John left for work before she got dressed, so he couldn’t possibly have known what she had on, so…..oh, never mind), while the other, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), imagines Jesus Christ himself, though one wonders why the big guy appears to have leapt from a Frida Kahlo painting, bearing not life’s answers or a tender embrace, but a big bottle of Evian. The big J.C. appears twice, in fact, and while it might be assumed that these delusions are the final thoughts of a dying man, I doubt Stone wanted me to burst out laughing and remain chuckling for a good three minutes. And yet, the hallucination was not nearly as annoying as John’s, who “converses” with his wife about crap that would force even Dr. Phil to put a .38 in his mouth. Their imagined dialogue is an embarrassment, and did little but make me wish the concrete and metal came crashing down at last, thereby suffocating a man forever who began to sound increasingly retarded the longer he remained below the surface. Cage is hardly a great actor in any context, but perhaps “brain damaged lummox” was not the proper tone to strike at such a time in the movie. We’re supposed to root for his survival, not reach for a dribble glass.

And let’s not forget the most baffling character of all, Staff Sergeant Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a certified lunatic (and ex-Marine, natch) who, while witnessing the events of that day, decided to put on his old uniform and head down to Ground Zero to help rescue victims. Before he arrives, though, he bows before a mammoth cross, whispers that God has given him special gifts, and wraps it up with a haircut to get fully into character. Fortunately, Karnes isn’t a central figure, but whenever he’s onscreen, I was sent into fits of hysterics; due in part to the wide-eyed overacting, yes, but also to the fact that this man actually exists. And if he’s a tenth as nutty as what we see here, I’m concerned that he’s not spending the rest of his days in a psychiatric hospital or even Leavenworth. After the two men are rescued, we hear Karnes on the phone, speaking the sort of dialogue best reserved for John Wayne: “No, I won’t be coming in today…It’s gonna take a lot of good men to avenge this.” Are you fucking kidding me? You mean to tell me that this man held the sort of job that gave two shits if he took a leave of absence? The end credits also tell us that the real Karnes re-enlisted and served two tours in Iraq after 9/11, though someone might have informed him that if lustful vengeance was his goal, his plane should have landed in the right goddamn country. Once again, can anyone legitimately claim that this film avoids politics when it links the 2001 attacks with the invasion of 2003? Sounds to me like Stone has left his 60s radicalism behind and gone straight for the church of Cheney and Rumsfeld. First Ron Silver, now Oliver Stone? Is nothing sacred?

Outside of the detours through the insipid, the film lacks any real drama, a result thought to be impossible given what happened that September morning. But watching two men take dust and pebbles in the face while exchanging the typical words of trapped men (what’s your wife’s name, how many kids do you have, etc.) never rises above a faint pulse. Again, though, the film might have overcome all that had it given us a glimpse of 9/11’s chaos. A key virtue of United 93 was its sense of head-spinning confusion that kept us in a funk for hours on end. It tapped the essential powerlessness we all felt, but also peeked behind the curtain to show that even where it most counted, talented, dedicated people couldn’t grasp what was before them. Stone’s work, on the other hand, feels every bit the performance; an artificial, cinematic re-creation of events without that spontaneity that makes for a striking narrative, even if we all know the outcome. World Trade Center cuts to the rubble, back to the families, to the collapsed buildings, and repeats the same circle again and again. Its march towards the inevitable (again, unlike United 93) seemed obligatory and dull, and not once did I feel anything approaching an emotional catharsis. Still, when the heavenly choir began to fill the air, I did feel something approaching nausea. Stone obviously forgot that true heroism need not be explained; we should understand it instinctively without the help of a battering ram.