World Trade Center: Two Disc Commemorative Edition Review
11 September 2001 begins like any other in New York City. Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) clock in and head for their usual beat. As the sun rises, they stop and chat to the bums seated about the stations, give directions to tourists and look out for pickpockets and bag snatchers. It's still early in the morning when Jimeno looks up and sees a plane flying low over the city, watching its shadow fall on a building before disappearing. Only seconds pass before there is a loud thump that rocks the city. Minutes later, there is the sound of sirens and their radios chatter with the order to come back to the precinct without delay.
There, McLoughlin, Pezzulo and Jimeno are ordered, along with the rest of their unit, to downtown, where there is an emergency situation. On a television in the background, the first news reports appear on the television of a passenger jet hitting one of the two towers of the World Trade Center, with the officers of the PAPD being bussed over to assist in the evacuation of the buildings. But what they find shocks them. One of the World Trade Center towers is already on fire, with the first of the victims already jumping to their death. As McLoughlin, Pezzulo and Jimeno enter the building, they pass by people running out covered in blood and dust, looking dazed as bodies, paper and bits of rubble fall about them. Entering the North Tower, a plane hits the South Tower and, with a rumble, the building begins to collapse around them. Heading for the elevator shaft, they disappear, surviving as the North Tower falls to the ground. But as silence descends, will they be rescued in time or will they join the thousands of others who died that day in the World Trade Center?
Obviously it's a disc that's been designed to play to a hometown crowd, which does then excuse the tagline on the front of this two-disc commemorative edition, being, "Glorifies that which is best in the American spirit." Being outside of the US, there's the suggestion in that phrase that there is something solely in the American spirit that would see the rescuers refuse to give up and would see the emergency services gather around the ruins of the World Trade Center until each and every survivor, and there were precious few of them, was accounted for. Interestingly, though, said phrase doesn't appear on the Region 2 release and nor, I'm assuming, anywhere else in the world. It may be that with the rest of the world being no stranger to disaster, the need to not give up may be something that glorifies the human spirit, not simply the American one.
All that one can really say in praise of World Trade Center is that it's pleasing to see director Oliver Stone get back to making a smaller film than he has done of late. After looking as though, from a position on the left, he was set to document every nook and cranny of sixties Americana, from Vietnam, Nixon, the assassination of JFK and the psychedelia of The Doors as well as the epic battles of Alexander, it's frankly something of a surprise to see Stone behind a film that spends much of its running time in the kitchens of a pair of working-class homes and under the rubble of the World Trade Center. Largely, one suspects, because the actual events portrayed in the film are so fresh in the minds of its audience, Stone takes no chances. For example, rather than using the footage of George Bush in the immediate aftermath of his hearing of the September 11th attacks, as Michael Moore was so keen to do, Stone presents him in news footage as a confident commander-in-chief. Anyone impressed with the manner in which Stone tied many disparate threads into the assassination of JFK or how he tied three stories from the Vietnam war together into a loose trilogy of Platoon, Born On The Fourth Of July and Heaven And Earth will be disappointed at the lack of risks taken by Stone in World Trade Center. There is barely even a mention of the attackers, only Staff Sergeant Karnes saying, as the film nears its end, that, "They're going to need some good men out there to avenge this" with an onscreen biography saying that Karnes would go on to complete two tours in Iraq.
However, in so many other respects, World Trade Center is a very dull film. The same thing that stops Stone taking any risks is also what stops any and all risks from being taken. A contrast can be made with the recent BBC dramatisation based around the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, which sought to dramatise a story of greed, of human weaknesses but also of human bravery against events of only two years ago. This isn't to say that the BBC is any more daring than any other large media corporation but much of the attacks of September 11th has, in light of subsequent events, led to the US presenting itself as worthy of special mention in the annals of victimhood, preserving those attacks as being, until now at least, beyond being used in conjunction with any dramatic licence. Hence, a character like Staff Sergeant Karnes, who is presented as being spectacularly inhuman, is brought straight to the screen without, one suspects, any changes to his character. Indeed, looking through other disaster films, who he bears closest similarity to is the straight-edge, right-wing gun nut National Guardsman as played by Marjoe Gortner in Earthquake, who was clearly the bad guy in his film yet Karnes, by his finding Jimeno, is a hero of World Trade Center. Perhaps it is that true life is stranger than art but were this to have been made ten years from now, it is likely that Karnes would have been softened for the screen.
There can be no mistaking the fact that what happened to Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin is an inspiring story, particularly in the manner in which Jimeno worked hard in difficult circumstances to talk to McLoughlin, keeping him conscious and hopeful of being rescued. But it would have been just as stirring a story had it been one of a number presented in a documentary on the twenty people who made it out of the rubble that day. Perhaps it's wrong to do so but given the size of the cinema screen, one expects a larger story when a film is projected upon it, which is where the greatest failing in World Trade Center lies. Had it not been about the events of September 11th and, say, in the aftermath of an entirely fictional avalanche, earthquake or bombing, this might have played out nicely on the Hallmark channel or True Movies. World Trade Center is, however, promises too much for the story of Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin to deliver. Unfortunately for them, they, and the bravery of those who rescued them, have been done a disservice by this film.
The look of the film is very matter-of-fact, with Stone preferring a rather drab setting in which to place his drama, much like the actual precinct buildings and New Yersey homes in which McLoughlin and Jimeno worked and lived. The DVD is often very good, with a clarity to the picture that isn't surprising given the age of the film but which still looks better than many other a recent film. However, what's just as good is that the picture is neither too bright nor too dark, with the viewer never having to strain to see Cage and Peña in the darkness of the rubble but also it never suggesting that they were clearly on a set.
The DD5.1 isn't a bad audio track but rather underplays itself, never quite offering as many memorable moments as one might expect. For example, I had expected much more use of the rear speakers and subwoofer for ambient and rumble effects but both were rather more subdued than they ought to have been. However, even down in the rubble of what remained of the World Trade Center towers, Stone keeps his dialogue clear, as he does in the bustle of the McLoughlin and Jimeno homes, to where he often moves the focus of his film. Finally, there are subtitles in English,
Commentaries: There are two included here, one from Oliver Stone, who has been recorded on his own, and the other from those actually featured in the film, including Will Jimeno and those who rescued him, Scott Strauss, John Busching and Paddy McGee. It's a pity that they're not together as Stone's take on the events as portrayed in the film would have contrasted nicely with Jimeno's memories of the day but, as is more common, they're very much aligned, with Jimeno praising Stone for his accuracy and for his respectful treatment of him, of McLoughlin and those who rescued him. As might be expected, Stone is very good on the making of the film but, from not being the writer, tends to be a little light on the events of the day whereas Jimeno et al tend not to bother with the actual film as much as what happened on September 11th. In as much as Jimeno talks about what happened - and he is a gracious host for his track - his commentary is very touching, certainly on a par with the actual film and often drawing one's attention to moments and details that might otherwise have passed the audience by.
Deleted And Extended Scenes (17m37s): Each of these scenes can be easily place from being bookended by moments that made it into the film but, from being included here, offer more characterisation and of smaller events throughout the day. With a commentary from Oliver Stone explaining why they were removed from the film, these are often interesting but, in summary, they would not have added a great deal to the film had they remained in place.
Finally, on this first disc, there is a set of Previews, including Dreamgirls, Babel, The Last Kiss, An Inconvenient Truth and the DVD release of Reds.
Making Of... (53m30s): Broken into three parts - Committing To The Story, Shooting In NY And LA and Closing Wounds - this is a very comprehensive documentary, featuring interviews not only with the cast and crew but also the real Will and Allison Jimeno and Donna McLoughlin. Being so, it doesn't just examine the background story and its basis in real life but how the various aspects of the film, such as home and family life, the rubble and the World Trade Center sets were created on location and on soundstages. However, being as wide-ranging as it is, there are also unwelcome moments, such as a costume designer explaining how the vision of Jesus, being the most jarring scene in the film, was created.
Common Sacrifice (54m30s): A marvellous documentary, this features John and Donna McLoughlin and Will and Allison Jimeno, as well as those acquainted with them, looking back at the events of the day, their rescue and how they've coped with life over the last five years. What's particularly good about it is that other than some reconstructions, it simply allows McLoughlin and Jimeno enough screen time to tell their story and to talk about the heroism of their colleagues, such as Dominick Pezzulo, who, in his last moments alive, fired off a number of shots to alert the emergency services to their location. Like the Making Of..., this is a very comprehensive piece, not only giving McLoughlin and Jimeno a voice but also the doctors, surgeons and physiotherapists who assisted their recovery, including still images of their efforts at gaining mobility once again.
Building Ground Zero (25m10s): The set design in the film is impressive, with this feature showing the audience how it was engineered, not only through the use of sets and pre-build models but also pre-visualisation techniques and computer animation. With this feature, we don't only get an explanation of efforts in that regard but also the mapping of the sets onto the real Ground Zero and the construction of a set that could be moved throughout the production to simulate the shifting of the rubble after the collapse of the towers.
Visual And Special Effects (12m09s): What visual effects there are in the film, notably the presentation of the towers of the World Trade Center, are well done, being quite underplayed compared to the action elsewhere. This short feature presents the effects work on the film, both with footage but also through interviews with those who were employed to work on it.
Oliver Stone's New York (24m31s): Stone is a native of New York and this feature interviews the director against a backdrop of the city to talk about its influence on his life, his growing up in it and how it has been a constant in his life, regardless of where he's been. Stone is a good host, able to talk openly about his childhood, his parents - his mother is also interviewed in this feature - and his making available archive movie footage and stills to illustrate his growing up, his time in Vietnam and his student movies.
Q & A w/ Oliver Stone (13m07s): This feature is an excerpt from BAFTA's David Lean Lecture Series featuring Oliver Stone in conversation in September of this year. Hosted by Mark Kermode, in time this does, as was implied by the title, open up the director to questions from the audience but begins by simply features Kermode asking the director about World Trade Center, the political influences in his work - much less so in this film than elsewhere - and the post-Vietnam era of filmmaking when compared to the post-9/11 era.
Finally, there is a Photo Gallery, five TV Spots (3m11s) and a Theatrical Trailer (2m34s). As a final note, all of these features are subtitled.
This film, as well as Paul Greengrass' United 93, was greeted with cries of, "Too soon!" when the trailers were shown. Perhaps they were, not for the reasons that first come to mind - the events are still too fresh in the minds of those affected by the disaster - but for the lack of drama afforded by the film. As it is, what Stone has produced is, in contrast to the real-life drama of the story, quite a bland film as well as being one that, by being overly respectful to the day, does Jimeno and McLoughlin no credit.