Up From the Ashes

In Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," on the morning of September 11, 2001, a Port Authority cop named Will Jimeno is doing his everyday job, shooing away prostitutes and panhandlers from the bus terminal, when he hears a loud rumble overhead. The camera pans, not up at the sky, but down the street, to reveal the shadow of a low-flying plane climbing the face of a building. Stone never shows the planes crashing into the Twin Towers. He's letting us know, right from the start, that we will see history unfold as it happened on the ground, from the perspectives of ordinary men and women.

The policemen portrayed in "World Trade Center" are real guys, and Stone is telling a true story. His heroes are not prepared for the disaster that looms. Most of the cops in the little squad headed by Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) decline to volunteer to go into the buildings, but a few, including Jimeno (Michael Peña), step forward. The men are obviously frightened, especially when they hear the sickening thump of bodies falling around them. They don't rush boldly into the buildings like action heroes in a disaster movie, but rather move slowly, hesitantly. Still, they do their duty in the face of terrible danger. Their bravery, as well as the courage of their families and their rescuers, helps to redeem the darkest of days.

This is not the 9/11 story most people would expect from Oliver Stone. There are no conspiracies lurking in the background. No axes to grind. Five years ago, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Stone was asked what kind of movie he'd make in response to the attack. He invoked the classic French thriller about terrorism, "The Battle of Algiers." He described a movie structured like a hunt, which would show how terrorism worked, from both the Arab and the American sides. "And if it were done realistically, without the search for a hero, which is often required, it would be a fascinating procedural," he said. A ragged Stone, who looked as if he'd been up half the night, was onstage at the New York Film Festival on a panel called "Making Movies That Matter," which this writer moderated. It was less than a month after 9/11, and passions ran high. Christopher Hitchens, the acid-tongued English journalist, jumped on Stone when he too-casually referred to the attack as "the revolt." Stone went on a tear about how capitalism had run amok and was destroying the movie business. He got pilloried in the press. Stone, who never forgets a fight or a bad word written about him, is still angry about the way the media twisted his words, making them sound as if he said the attack was a specific response to the corporate New World Order.

These days, if Stone has a theory about September 11, he's keeping it to himself. Capitalism marches on. "World Trade Center" —made with the full cooperation of McLoughlin and Jimeno—is a far cry from "The Battle of Algiers." It has no interest in the terrorism. It's explicitly about heroism. It may strike some, at first glance, as a surprisingly conventional film from this controversial filmmaker. And it's the rare Stone film he didn't write himself. But he knew when he first read Andrea Berloff's powerful screenplay that he wanted to make it, and he petitioned for the job. "The beauty of the script was that it had hope," Stone says. He knew that, after "Alexander" and other commercial failures, Hollywood regarded him as tainted goods, never mind his two Oscars. "I guess I couldn't get arrested, is one way of saying it." But "World Trade Center" is anything but an impersonal job-for-hire. The passion that went into its making is pure Stone, and many of its concerns—his fascination with men in groups, with working-class camaraderie, with the nature of courage—can be traced back 20 years, to "Platoon."

Piercingly moving and utterly unpolitical, "World Trade Center" holds us in a fierce grip. At the simplest level, it's a rescue movie. McLoughlin, 53, and Jimeno, 38, were on a rescue mission themselves when the building collapsed around them. Stone's terrifying re-creation of the towers' imploding—the sound of it—is the first time a filmmaker has shown us what it must have felt like from the inside, and the scene's impact is indelible. But it's that deathly quiet moment after the screen goes black, when we first see in the darkness the pinned, immobile body of McLoughlin buried in the rubble of the tower, that the viewer feels a stab of claustrophobic panic. We ask ourselves not just "Will John and Will ever get out?" but, more selfishly, will we?

It was a question Stone anticipated as he plunged into the project. How much would an audience endure? The director had to figure out when, and how often, his narrative needed to return aboveground, where we meet Will's and John's families, desperate for news of the missing men, and follow the rescue workers searching the rubble for survivors. At what point would the viewer shut down? Stone's calibrations reveal his superb storytelling instincts. He's not interested in punishing us. But his worry could stand as a metaphor for the questions that surround the representation of 9/11 in the arts. How much can we bear? What can art illuminate about that day? Should an artist be constrained by the sensitivities of the survivors? Who is to judge what can and can't be said about that watershed event?

The release of "World Trade Center" only a few months after Paul Greengrass's shattering "United 93" indicates a 180-degree turn in the five years since the attack—at least in Hollywood's response. Immediately after 9/11, all images of the towers were digitally erased from movies. Filmmakers rewrote the horizon line of New York for fear that a glimpse of those buildings in an innocuous romantic comedy like "Serendipity" would jar an audience out of the fantasy. A moment in "Spider-Man" that had featured the superhero spinning a web between the towers was cut. But by 2005, Steven Spielberg, in "Munich," was digitally inserting the Twin Towers into the skyline at the end of the film, linking the terrorism in his tale to the terrorist attack that was to come. Now Stone takes us deep into the charred heart of Ground Zero. A cultural psychoanalyst, citing Kübler-Ross's five stages of grief, might argue that this portends that we have moved from denial to acceptance. Perhaps. But nothing about our collective response to that day has been simple, or neat.

Forging art out of tragedy is a primal human response. In New York, it began on Sept. 12. "I was gripped by all the little shrines that had sprung up all over the city of New York," recalls art critic Arthur Danto, who curated a show called "The Art of 9/11" last September. "The spontaneity, the way in which everybody seemed to do it to express their feelings—right away, right away—through these little shrines. It taught me something about how people respond to devastation: through beauty." Photographers were the natural first responders: to document the searing images of a city turned upside down seemed the most direct, urgent response. Songwriters of every stripe searched for musical balm. Later, playwrights, choreographers, painters, composers and novelists would weigh in, trying to take the measure of a day that had changed the future. As Greengrass puts it, "Suddenly the world was never going to be free of fear for any of us." The short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg would transmute that feeling memorably in her short story "Twilight of the Superheroes": "O that day! One kept waiting for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real—the intended—future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold. Hour after hour, month after month, waiting for that day to not have happened. But it had happened. And now it was always going to have happened."

From the first, there was an acute self-consciousness about what was culturally appropriate. Some of the self-imposed restrictions were a matter of tact, a response to the rawness of our feelings. Disaster movies were pulled from the TV schedule. Ultraviolent films in the works were canceled (temporarily). Clear Channel issued a long, peculiar list of songs deemed unseemly for airplay on its radio stations. ("Imagine"? Really?) The Death of Irony was prematurely declared. Now, finally, it was predicted, we'd turn away from our frivolous preoccupation with celebrity. And people were told to watch what they said.

As Stone's movie reminds us, in news clips of people around the globe watching in shock, the sympathies of the world were with us. It was not to last. The politicization of 9/11 could not wait. In a climate of fear and flag-waving, with a pre-emptive war soon to come, the artist became suspect. The right-wing press accused Steve Earle of treason for writing "John Walker's Blues," a song that tried to get inside the mind of the young American Taliban fighter captured in Afghanistan. The left cringed at Toby Keith's bombs-away musical response to 9/11, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" ("Soon as we could see clearly/Through our big black eye/Man, we lit up your world/Like the Fourth of July"). "The fact that everybody felt they had to line up and march to the same drummer after 9/11 was a really sad moment in the history of art," says Michael Moore. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman remembers the pressures that artists felt. "At the end of 2002 there was a kind of fearfulness that went well beyond yellow or orange alerts," says the author of "In the Shadow of No Towers," a book that records his personal response to the terrorist attack. "There was a shutdown, not just of irony, but of comedy and political conversations that could be seen in some ways as disloyal." By the time his 2004 book came out, Spiegelman found there had been a thaw: "It was the beginning of a sea change."

Almost by definition, artists make their own rules, and are hostile to restraints. Whatever works. "In art, anything goes, and if it goes, it goes," says John Updike, whose new best-selling novel "Terrorist" concerns an 18-year-old Muslim suicide bomber raised in New Jersey. "There should be no off-limits signs to the writer's imagination. Kurt Vonnegut once said about the Holocaust that he thought only the people who were there are entitled to write about it. I don't feel that's the case with 9/11. I think most of the people who were really there can't speak now. We should not be afraid of trying to grasp it."

When previews of Greengrass's "United 93" appeared in theaters, some shouted that it was "too soon" to relive this experience. But no one had asked if it was too soon for Ian McEwan to publish his novel "Saturday," for Jonathan Safran Foer to write "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"—or even if it was too soon for the earlier, widely viewed TV movie on A&E, "Flight 93." The question arose when Hollywood got into the act, a testament both to the overwhelming visceral power of movies (let's not forget how often, that day, everyone kept repeating how much like a disaster movie the destruction of the towers felt) and to the public's perennial suspicions of Hollywood's motives.

The outpouring of art about 9/11 underscores the centrality of that day in our national identity. How could an artist avoid it? What is less clear, and more fraught with ambivalence, is whether the public's appetite for 9/11 art matches the artist's need to produce it. "United 93" was a brilliant piece of cinéma vérité-style filmmaking, but many people, knowing how the story ended, understandably refused to submit themselves to the experience. It left the taste of ashes in your mouth.

Stone's "World Trade Center" is a very different kind of movie. For one thing, it's a story few of us have heard. More crucially, it holds out hope: it's a story of survival and selflessness. What it does share with "United 93" is the desire to look at the event with eyes uncontaminated by politics. "WTC" should be embraced as readily by conservatives (whom Paramount is actively courting with advance screenings in Washington) as by liberals. For two hours and nine minutes, at least, it makes the distinction irrelevant.

This will come as a surprise to those who think of Stone as the polemical director of "JFK" and "Nixon" and "Salvador." Straightforward, classically paced, this Stone movie has neither the feverish stylistic hysteria of "Natural Born Killers" nor the emotional overkill that sometimes marred "Born on the Fourth of July." "The style of this movie," says Stone, "is dictated by its subject—its simplicity, its modesty, its working-class origins." One of his models was the austere French director Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest," a story of a spiritual journey played out largely on the face of its protagonist.

"World Trade Center" is several things: an act of commemoration, an edge-of-your-seat rescue movie, a moving tribute to all who risked and gave their lives at Ground Zero, and a family drama that examines the marriages that, in Stone's view, gave John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno reasons to live. (A blue-eyed Maria Bello, all coiled tension, plays Donna McLoughlin, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, pitched a hairbreadth short of hysteria, plays Allison Jimeno. Both are superb.) For Stone, the movie ponders one question: "What keeps people alive?" As the reticent leader racked with guilt about the men he's lost, and as the younger man who had grown up dreaming of becoming a cop, Cage and Peña, acting for much of the movie under the constraint of stillness, do an extraordinary job of illuminating the inner turmoil of these plain-spoken men.

"The consequences of 9/11 are enormous to this world, not just to America," says Stone. "This movie is made for the world, and if it's what I hope it to be, it transcends 9/11. It's about anybody, anywhere, who feels the taste of death, whether it was a bombing in Madrid or an earthquake or a tsunami. It's the same theme of being trapped. And you are dependent on others for rescue. I was rescued one time by someone who saved me and my son from drowning in Bali. And there were a few close calls in Vietnam. It is all these things you're aware of at the last moment. I appreciated the chance to illustrate it."

As a Vietnam vet, Stone is the rare Hollywood director of his generation whose knowledge of life doesn't come just from old movies. In that, he's a throwback to the old-time moviemakers he reveres, like Frank Capra. And like Capra, he isn't afraid of heading into territory some might label sentimental. Stone was determined to be faithful to the factual details of John and Will's experience, and that takes him places you may not expect an Oliver Stone movie to go. Jimeno was sustained in this long ordeal by an actual vision of Jesus, and Stone shows us that vision as Will might have seen it. Peña puts a marvelous spin on the moment, playing it not with pious awe but with an almost childlike delight.

One of the two men who first found McLoughlin and Jimeno was Sgt. David Karnes (Michael Shannon), a character many preview viewers wrongly assumed was a pure Hollywood contrivance. Karnes, an ex-Marine and devout Christian who was working as an accountant in Connecticut on 9/11, felt called to Ground Zero by God. He shaved his head, donned his old uniform and drove to New York (in a Porsche 911—a portentous omen the movie omits for fear of stretching our credulity too far). Karnes then talked his way through the security lines and, miraculously, located the men buried in the wreckage. His eyes blazing with zealous righteousness, Karnes will be seen by some as a moral paragon, by others as a "nut job," as one of the rescue workers refers to him. What no one can deny is that his heroism helped save these men's lives. Stone makes no judgment.

Stone himself was in need of a redemption when he discovered Berloff's script for "WTC." He had devoted years of his life to making his historical epic "Alexander." "God, what an experience!" he says. "It was a highlight of my cinematic life, and that includes a lot of highlights." So he was "triply crushed" when the film was battered by the critics and crashed and burned in the United States. "This town is ruthless, unforgiving."

Producers Michael Shamberg and Stacy Sher were thrilled that Stone saw exactly the same movie they envisioned. ("WTC" was originally launched by producer Debra Hill, who died of cancer last year.) Within 20 minutes of their first meeting, Stone and Berloff had a blueprint of the Trade Center on the floor and were tracing the path that their heroes had taken as they walked through the mall. The director's trademark intensity never let up. "I remember the first time we took him to meet the McLoughlins and the Jimenos," recalls Sher. "It was like hours of cross-examination. He carries these legal pads. When you work with Oliver it's like having the D.A. or the top prosecutor working for you." Filming the rescue on an elaborate set that production designer Jan Roelfs constructed on an acre of land in Playa Vista, Calif., Stone surrounded himself with the real firefighters, medics and rescue workers who had been involved, altering the dialogue if it wasn't accurate (Karnes wouldn't have said that he was at "Ground Zero"—that term came later—he'd say "Trade Center"). He often replaced actors and stuntmen with the real rescuers, who knew exactly how tight the crawl space was, and how to maneuver through it.

When test-screening the movie, Paramount was struck by the enthusiastic response it elicited from teenagers. For some, it seemed to bring into focus an event that had been a disturbing blur. Stone says the film has tested better with all ages than any movie he's made. The studio, of course, is fervently hoping that all those viewers who were afraid to see "United 93"—which still made a very respectable $32 million—will flock to the $63 million "World Trade Center."

Paramount is, quite properly, emphasizing the movie's uplifting qualities. "A lot of the conversation about 9/11 in the five years since it's happened has been motivated by a political agenda. From all sides," says Maggie Gyllenhaal. "What that's done is make everyone really wary of talking about it and thinking about it. Which is why I think 'World Trade Center' is so special. Somehow, in the midst of all this, Oliver has made a movie that doesn't seem to have an agenda, either political or personal. It really is about honoring people."

"World Trade Center" celebrates the ties that bind us, the bonds that keep us going, the goodness that stands as a rebuke to the horror of that day. Perhaps, in the future, the times will call for more challenging, or polemical, or subversive visions. Right now, it feels like the 9/11 movie we need.