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The World Trade Centre – You can’t ignore the politics

A moment of history

A moment of history

The World Trade Centre – Oliver Stone

Non-political? Give me a break. Oliver Stone should never have been let anywhere near this film. Not because of his supposed left wing political views, but because he has always been an exploitative film-maker. And sure enough, ‘World Trade Centre’ is manipulative, sentimental, patronising and exploitative. Parts of it are downright offensive. Not because they are necessarily false, I have no way of knowing, but because even if true, Stone has manipulated real people and their stories in order to manufacture a product that panders to the worst passive-aggressive elements of American public opinion since 9/11. Passive because with a wilful political naivete and culpable ‘why do they hate-us’ indignation, American voters who elected G W Bush for the second time post-9/11, display of a kind of morally abused victimhood in a simplistic white hat, black hat, good v evil world. That unworthy emotion is what Stone plugs into knowing it will put bums on seats and dollars in the bank. And it is hard to imagine anything more alien or insulting to the indomitable, bloody-minded, rigorously unsentimental independence, determination and raw courage of New Yorkers. ‘World Trade Centre’ dishonours the very people it claims to celebrate.

I hardly need to spell out how this sense of passive victimhood has been expressed in illegal, self-interested aggression masquerading as righteous indignation a continent away from New York City. Thousands of relatives of the non-combatant victims of virulent religious bigotry in the two towers, are rightly disgusted, even ashamed, at the cynical exploitation of their loss, their grief and their sorrow, by an adminstration not without its own form of bigotry. Of course anyone who thinks melting down metal from the WTC debris and incorporating it into a new American warship is a fitting ‘tribute’ to the non-combatant lives lost will disagree. 9/11 removed ‘innocent’ from the lexicon. The enemy insist that in a democracy, no-one is innocent.

Is a film review the right place for political judgements? Depends on the film. The idea that one could make a film about 9/11 ignoring the irreducibly political dimension of the events is I’m afraid fatuous. Stone is credited with trying to do this. Wrongly, because his emphasis on the Dave Karnes story-line (evangelical reservist Marine sergeant turns up to help and opines to camera that strong men will be needed to avenge the events and therefore re-enlists to do 2 tours in Iraq) though apparently true, reeks of righteous vengeance. So I guess those among the 3,000 victims who were pacifist, atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Hindu etc whose point of view Stone ignored were of less significance.

What the American people needed at 8.25 am on the 11th of September 2001 were heroes. And true to their finest national traditions, it got them – in their hundreds. What they didn’t need was icons or myths. Stone’s film markets the myth, the icons, to make a buck. To reject the iconography is not to deny the heroism. Even if Stone’s motives are not venal, these heroes deserved better. Apart from the appalling loss of life, the profoundly disturbing thing about 9/ll given the beautiful, perfect sunny day, the inevitable ubiquity of cameras and a totally professional media machine – is that for the first time ever, reality became indelibly iconographic – live on TV. The form of the pictures, played in a macabre, graceful slow motion, generated an ashamed and shameful but irresistible urge to watch them, again and again. Yet the reality of their content repulsed and horrified. We are still struggling with that cultural and moral paradox. And Oliver Stone’s film is far too shallow to help us with it.

Apart from intentions, the problems with ‘WTC’ are aesthetic not factual. Port Authority Police officers John McLaughlin and Will Jimeno whose extraordinary survival against all odds to be the last people rescued alive from the collapsed towers, assisted with the movie. From the writing credits the screenplay appears to use some of what they actually said. But there is a crucial difference between McLauglin and Jimeno telling us what happened straight to camera, as they did in the documentary about 9/11, and asking actors to deliver those lines in a dramatised reconstruction. The difference is art. And Stone’s ‘WTC’ is art-less. But artful. He never resolves the dilemma that as the real events looked for all the world like a Hollywood film, what should his film look like?

The film is technically very competent, a sense of what it must have been like inside as the towers fell, is effectively conveyed and the claustrophobic innate horror of being buried alive, not surprisingly comes over. But you cannot capture the extraordinary courage and determination to survive of these two men actually facing almost certain death by having actors buried in fake debris ‘act’ the actual words they uttered at the time. The real witness accounts transcend the understandably banal words, their everyday ordinariness in such extraordinary real circumstances being precisely what inspires. In Stone’s dramatic recreation only the banality is left. The aesthetic paradox is that to convey the humbling, heroic spirit of these men’s experience through art, requires different words. There is a critical difference between artistic truth and empirical truth.

For example: I assume one of the men did have a vision of Christ as he lay, as he thought, dying. The actual experience must have been profound, probably life-changing. But Stone represents this with excruciatingly banal psychedelic imagery that looks re-cycled from his Jim Morrison biopic ‘The Doors’.

The essential requirement to take on this project, apart from a truthful, committed talent, was artistic humility. Whatever qualities his admirers may attribute to Oliver Stone, humility isn’t one of them. We see this demeanour in Paul Greengrass’s ‘United 93’, both in his sensible choice of the docu-dramatic form and the anonymity of his cast of actors. Through no fault of his own Nicolas Cage invalidates ‘WTC’ from the start. Of the socially patronising, melodramatic efforts of Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello and others to represent the families of the two men, kindness suggests we should draw a veil.

A key issue: a while back, the Royal Academy of Art commissioned the fine young British artist Stuart Pearson-Wright, to paint a portrait of the Duke of Edinburgh. The result was a fascinating, extraordinarily evocative painting, which showed the Duke’s children in miniature dancing in the palm of his hand. It resonated with a sense of the man, with all his contractions, good and bad. The Duke hated it and insisted on a new one being painted. This Pearson-Wright duly did, in a more traditional form, which the Duke approved. We may argue about the relative merits of the two paintings but my point is that the person depicted cannot be considered the final and definitive arbiter of the truthfulness of the art that depicts him. The pressures on McLoughlin and Jimeno to support Stone’s film are both powerful and diverse, and they need not for one minute be insincere or self-serving. But the judgement of the artistic effectiveness of the film in conveying a sense of the events in which they were caught up, is different from their assessment of its factual accuracy.

There can be no citizen of any city on earth more unwilling to be seen as a helpless victim than a New Yorker. The pervasive sense of passive-aggressive victimhood in evidence in America since the trauma of 9/11 is in the best sense, also profoundly un-American. Its expression in paranoid films like ‘Signs’ and ‘War of The Worlds’ is a triumph of market driven commercialism over respect for true American values. The ultimate failure of Oliver Stone’s film is that in conception and execution it panders to the first and captures none of the second. The USA, never mind the non-combatant victims of 9/11, needed and deserved better.

(October 2006)

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