the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Monday, August 14, 2006

World Trade Center













You know you are dissatisfied with a movie when your subconscious mind attempts to continually and restlessly remake the film through your dreams while you sleep.

World Trade Center is not a great film. It barely passes as a good one. For a film that should have hollowed out its audience, I walked out strangely unmoved. The few people that actually attended the screening with me seemed to concur.

World Trade Center, by the very nature of its subject, promises emotional resonance that it is oddly incapable of delivering. It is a made-for-TV movie--complete with annoying flashbacks--with an extraordinary budget, and ends with the sort of standard studio scenario, chock full of uplifting messages about disaster bringing out "the goodness we forgot could exist." Please. Is it true? Well, yes. But making a good memorial and making a good drama are two vastly different things.

We perhaps hold--or should hold--true events to a higher standard than those conceived in a writer's fantasy. Especially when those true events focus on the sort of tragedies that are guaranteed to elicit emotion in an almost Pavlovian way. The last thing we want is manipulated, gooey tears. Yet largely, that is exactly what we are given here.

World Trade Center is a scrupulous, honorable and noble tribute to those who died, those who lived and those who made that difference. Yet there is nothing revelatory, nothing haunting, nothing of lasting gravity. We never forget we're watching a movie, and an unconvincing one at that.

World Trade Center is a well-intentioned, old-fashioned, sincere movie that disappoints because it cannot overcome its cloying sentimentality, obvious manufactured rhythms, and plodding, even monotonous trajectory. Where United 93 was an authentic and harrowing account of that horrible day in September, World Trade Center is a film-by-numbers movie, steeped in convention and lacking any sort of power to surprise or overwhelm. United 93, about events peripheral to the destruction of the Twin Towers is by far the superior film. The great film about New York City's agony has yet to be made. (Let's just pray that Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay don't decide to try their hand at it sometime, a la Pearl Harbor. That film would make World Trade Center look like a masterpeice by comparison.)

I have no problem that World Trade Center was made in the first place. Artists should and must confront the great, gaping wounds of our time. It's odd that Hollywood gets attacked by jeers of "too soon!" by the same people who don't bat an eyelash at the songs, paintings, poems and novels written about the same events. Such is the transcendent power of film.

This is certainly not the film about 9/11 that any of us expected Oliver Stone to make. Never an easy filmmaker to digest--even if you like his body of work--Stone here becomes at palatable and artistic as Rob Howard. It's not that any of us actually wanted to see a Stone 9/11 film steeped in conspiracy and controversy--but in reigning himself in from his dispositions, it is almost as if he cut himself off from the source of his power--both creatively and philosophically.

Heroism, loyalty and hope are fine values to champion, to be sure (although the film also manages to slip in "vengeance" as a good, old-fashioned American family value near the end as well), but as good as those ideals are and as movingly as they are presented here, they could have been told within the framework of any random story. World Trade Center comments very little on the greater tragedy. By narrowing its focus to such laser thin precision, it castrates itself of any depth or big-picture resolution. Instead, it wraps itself up like a Hallmark special. While a gripping and inspiring story, however true to life it may be, it cannot comment on anything other than the fight of imperiled men to survive and brave men to save them.

In just a few weeks, New York City will observe the five year anniversary of the national tragedy. I will be a resident of the city by that time. I will participate in that momentous day. I keep wondering what it would have been like to have lived there then, to have lived through that horrible day at ground zero. Films like World Trade Center are supposed to transport me to a time and place where, vicariously at least, I can catch a glimpse of what it might have been like. Unfortunately, World Trade Center was so worried about being safe that it forgot to be effective.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Jeff said...

I enjoyed your review, although you owe a debt to Entertainment Weekly for your Ron Howard line.

I'd give "WTC" a C.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Yes, I liked thier Howard comment. So sue me! (Cheesy, old-fashioned emoticon smiley face here)

I agree with your C.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

Do you think it suffered from the use of "names?" I mean, Stone has done more with less. I'm not a big Cage fan, and maybe part of what United 93 did that added to its success was the use of "unknowns."

I mean, how many of us knew any of the firefighters and police who died that day. There were actually a couple of rather minor celebreties on one or two of the planes, that day, but mostly this was a story about ordinary people, living pretty ordinary lives, dying extraordinary deaths.

Maybe what kept you from being able to 'let go' of the unreality of it was the unreality of well-known, big name beautiful "stars" playing the part of "real" people.

R.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

I think that had a lot to do with it Robin and I even neglected mentioning that very thing in the post because I knew it would inevitably come up in the comments.

I don't think it suffers from "names" when examined in a vacuum or if we allow the film to stand on its own. If that weren't the case, we'd never be able to look past actors and have a visceral reaction to an emotional film.

However, when you put it beside something like "United 93"--a deeply troubling film based on similiar, true events--then you are absolutely right. That Greengrass used nobody actors in "93" made the film so much more believable, so much more powerful, so much better.

It is true that you cannot watch "WTC" and not always know you are looking at Nick Cage.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Nate said...

Man, I could not be more with you on this.

Saw it Sunday with my mom – and I’ve been thinking about it since, why it was so lacking, and remaking it in my head.

Not sure it was an appropriate pick for someone going through a divorce, but she was the one that was eager to see it. She can smell Hallmark from miles away, and rather than repulsing her this is what draws her. When I questioned her on why she refused to see United 93, but was seeing this on opening weekend, she didn’t have an answer. I didn’t press. I’m not a jerk, after all, but I knew the reason. This one had Nicholas Cage, and the trailers had trailer ready lines, and swelling music, and she had actually seen people talk about it on Entertainment Tonight. The woman has a death-grip on her comfort zone. I try not to let it irritate me too much, especially now. But still, it bugged me.
It has an absurdly unrepresentative happy ending – which is fine, except maybe not for the first major movie about the New York events. And it’s not badly crafted. It’s competent. But it’s too easy.

Oddly, this isn’t the result of sensationalizing.
This Slate article lays it out. I remember reading the extensive, orginal account a couple years ago. It’s amazing; I remember being floored by it and by a longer version that is lost to me in the internet ocean. Its vague memory was pestering me all throughout the movie: wasn’t there more to the story than this?

For this particular tale, the Slate piece is way more effective.
In the film, there were a few brief moments of real power. I’m thinking of the dull, earth shaking thud heard within the banal setting of the port authority office. But from there it goes downhill.

The fascinating story of what happened on top of the rubble pile in the first 48 hours was given very little attention in this movie. The story of the rescue itself is far more worthy of telling than the story of waiting to be rescued…yet, oddly, Stone went with the latter.

The great 9/11 movie that has yet to be made will defy all sorts of Hollywood conventions, and yet will be as big as the story deserves. United 93 got it right, but that was just one small piece of the story, and its telling, honestly, is just one direction to go. The real 9/11 movie will have a broader scope, be directed with more verve, guts, and artistry, and have much more of a broken heart than World Trade Center. The problem with getting this across is that the great 9/11 will be so utterly groundbreaking that it will be quite indescribable by those who have seen it to those who haven’t. The simplest way to explain my disappointment in World Trade Center is that it is quite describable: It’s a classy Ladder 49, and the sheer power and terror of that day deserves better treatment.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Brandon Fibbs said...

Wonderfully said.

7:33 PM  
Blogger Tanya said...

I got stuck in the first line: "You know you are dissatisfied with a movie when your subconscious mind attempts to continually and restlessly remake the film through your dreams while you sleep." I only saw the preview a few weeks ago and I "re-wrote" the film in my sleep. I think the subconscious goes deeper than that...might want to re-consider the implications of the dream/the work of the subconscious. Whatever the case, I'll take your word for it and I'll pass.

8:55 AM  

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