I need tell no one the significance of today’s date. As we commemorate the fifth anniversary of 9/11, we wonder what is the appropriate response to mark today’s momentous date. I suppose everyone has their own way and their own views on how best to do this; for me, I had to honor the memory of those killed in my own way by doing what I do best: watching movies.
So I went out to go see Oliver Stone’s new movie, “World Trade Center.” You might think, given the date, that the theatre would be crowded. Well, maybe you wouldn’t, knowing what you know about theatre attendance for dramas that have been out for three weeks, and weekday matinees. But I didn’t take that i nto account and expected there might be a line. I was dead wrong. There were only two other people in the theatre besides myself.
Anyway, I thought “World Trade Center” was Stone’s best movie in a decade. His best since “Nixon.” Actually, that isn’t saying too much. As some of you may know, I am just in love with Stone’s early work such as “Wall Street,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Natural Born Killers,” and “JFK,” but I have been extremely disappointed in his last several films: “Any Given Sunday,” “U-Turn,” “Alexander.” But he did a lot better with “World Trade Center.” Granted, it may be the topic which is just too overwhelming to judge critically, but it’s fair to say that this film was powerful and emotional. It had good acting and good effects. I think Stone has regained his sense of what makes good drama.
Oddly, however, the film seemed to have no perspective. It zeroed in on such a pinpoint of history and the characters had such an ignorance of what had caused their predicament, and didn’t even speculate on it, that you have no sense this film was made in 2006 rather than 2001. No politics, no history (except for one character extremely briefly muttering to himself under his breath that he wants revenge). The film’s grand thematic conclusion—that on that day we saw both good and evil—is nothing new or interesting at all. I think I first heard someone say that within two or three days of 9/11. Where’s the perspective of someone looking back from five years later?
I think it’s ironic that a little more than a decade ago, after “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers,” Stone was the most politically controversial director in Hollywood. And now that he tackles the most politically controversial topic of our time, the attack on the WTC, it’s not political at all. The mainstream, non-controversial Steven Spielberg had far more to say about combating terrorism in the post-9/11 world with “Munich,” a film set nearly 30 years before 9/11.
Still, Stone did a good job recreating a moment in history. It was moving, dramatic, had excellent effects, and it had great acting. And I guess it had as much to say as “The Guys,” the first post-9/11 film to deal with it. It was a glorification of the blue-collar first-responders. Brave men, certainly. So many paid for their reckless bravery with their lives, and many are now still paying for it because so many of those first-responders now have a serious sickness. Is it worth it to be a hero? I think Stone is saying yes in this film. But I think he gave a different answer in “Born on the Fourth of July.” (A topic worth exploring another time.)
Later in the evening, I settled down to watch my next Netflix DVD which came in the mail. As fate would have it, it was “United 93.” I’d been wanting to see that movie ever since it came out and today, of all days, was the day I finally got to see it.
Overall, it was a good film, thought a bit disappointing given my expectations. In fact, the whole first three-quarters of the film was not very dramatic. (I think Greengrass’s “Bloody Sunday” did a better job of keeping up dramatic interest.) Not to say that it was boring—not at all. It was quite interesting to see what was going on in the control rooms the morning of September 11. But it just wasn’t dramatic. I didn’t feel like I knew any of the characters and therefore couldn’t care for them. Only in the last 15 minutes or so, as the passengers plotted and then fought back, did the movie get really intense and powerful. And at least this movie dealt with an issue that Stone’s movie didn’t: the fundamentalist religion of the hijackers and their unshakeable belief that what they were doing was right.
But in the end, the funny thing is, I actually liked “Flight 93” better. (That was the made-for-TV movie that came out last Spring.) I think “Flight 93” did a better job creating the characters and making us feel for them as they faced certain death.
So that was how I commemorated this awesome and dreadful day. A day of watching movies. Did I learn anything from them? In the end, I’m sad to say, no. When I go to the movies, I want to be exposed to something new and neither film made me feel like there has been any perspective or thought in the last five years. Instead, they put me back in the moment as if those years had never happened. Where’s Iraq? Where’s Afghanistan? Where’s Katrina? Personally, I’ve changed so much in the last five years. I’m no longer waiting in vain for the other shoe to drop. The last time I got on a plane I had much less fear than the first time I got on a plane after 9/11. Instead, now I fear my government more than I fear the terrorists. And I feel much more pain and sadness for the world as I’ve watched the good feelings that Americans had for each other and the world had for America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 deteriorate into so much hate. Every group hates the other group so much more now than before 9/11. There’s no national unity. No peace in the Middle East. The whole world hates America and America has strained its relations with even some of its best friends like France and Spain. Iraq is a quagmire, Israel is at war again, and Afghanistan is all but forgotten. None of this is reflected in any way in either of these two films.
So are they worth watching at all? Well, I guess that depends on what you go to the movies for. If you’re up for time travel, go for it. In some ways, that was a better world than the one we live in now.
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