"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Stone's WTC Disaster Flick

I know, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center opens today, but I'm busy working, so I'll just save that one for later.

Does that seem crass? Is it an obligation on my part, as a critic and, much more important, as a citizen? Is this like church?

WTC poster image

I don't think so. I was very impressed with the earlier theatrical treatment of these events, United 93. It showed in microcosm the struggle that was to come in the War on Terror, and it was very moving and intense.

Stone's film, however, strikes me as just another disaster flick, like Poseidon or Earthquake.

Earthquake poster imageHow can I say such a beastly thing? What is the matter with me?

As Debbie Schlussel points out in today's issue of FrontPage magazine,

Who caused the attacks of 9/11? Who hijacked planes? Who flew them into the Towers? In "World Trade Center," it's hard to tell. Nicholas Cage's cop rescued from beneath the ruins speaks of "the evil"; a Wisconsin cop twice mentions the "bastards"; And a marine speaks about the need to "avenge this." But what is the evil? Who are the bastards? What needs to be "avenged"? Stone deliberately whitewashes the clear-cut answer to these questions—extremist Islam's attack on Americans. . . .
"World Trade Center" is more notable for what it leaves than for its content.
There isn't a single mention of Islam. Or Bin Laden. Or Mohammed Atta. Were there really 19 hijackers on the planes? No mention of them in this movie.

As Schlussel writes,

this one is like "The Poseidon Adventure," with concrete instead of water. And Nicholas Cage instead of Shelley Winters. Some unnatural force caused water to sink the ship and the World Trade Center towers to mysteriously implode upon themselves.

What is missing from World Trade Center, and what makes it a disaster film instead of a serious drama that deals with its subject from all the important angles, is a strong sense of why the disaster happened. Oh, we all know what happened and why, but Stone is careful not to tell us who is responsible. In a serious drama, there are people on both sides of the central conflict, as in United 93, and we know exactly who these people are and why they're doing what they're doing. But in a disaster film, the central catastrophe is simply a given; it just happened, and the story is about how people respond to it.

That, as the producers of World Trade Center readily admit, is exactly what Stone's new film does. And that is why we have no obligation to rush out to see it, any more than we should rush out to buy DVD copies of Poseidon or Earthquake.

To be sure, there are lessons about human character to be drawn from a well-made disaster film. Some characters respond heroically, some just follow the leaders, some do stupid things that worsen the situation, and some actively resist what is clearly right to do. But all are simply responding to a catastophe for which no one is shown to be fully responsible.

In limiting the scope of his film in this way, Stone misses an important opportunity to draw a serious distinction that would place his heroes' actions in context. For people to risk their lives to help others is surely among the most honorable things we can imagine. And for people to give up their lives in order to kill innocent people is, by contrast, among the most dishonorable, despicable things possible. Stone refuses to make this contrast, and in doing so he limits the meaning of what the emergency workers did. That is a serious flaw indeed.

The emergency workers and police officers who rushed into the Twin Towers on September 11 are impressive heroes. We should continue to honor them. And it is good to be reminded of their sacrifices and why they made them. But going to see a disaster movie that leaves out half the story is no way to do so.

From Karnick on Culture.


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