Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Maggie Gylllenhaal, Maria Bello, Michael Shannon, Frank Whaley and Stephen Dorff.
Transit cops John McLoughin, Will Jimeno and their team are trapped beneath the rubbled of felled WTC 1 in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, instead of helping survivors, they are survivors themselves in need of rescue. Can the other first responders get to them before time runs out?
When I was in college, I was required to take a psych course. I was matriculating in education, and basic psychology was one of the prerequisites of the program. It was essentially there to give students a better understanding of how the mind operated, if only on a basic level. I learned quite a bit, but not enough to list it all here. In fact it’s mostly been forgotten. But I do recall learning about a particular phenomenon of memory. It’s a relatively new concept in psychology, new as far as immediate media access is concerned, called a “flashbulb memory.” Such memories are more or less a collective one, revolving around a significant social event to which many people were made aware, usually through the media, especially through radio, television and most recently the Internet. Events like the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion…and 9/11.
Around the time the Towers fell, I was still deep in my anarchist, punker days I had carried around since college. Terribly cynical and a general malcontent (not much has changed, BTW, save the waistline). When I was roused that fateful morning by one of my roommates who was both an insomniac and a TV addict, I stared at the screen seeing the Manhattan skyline razed and said, “I’ll be damned.” Not the most pithy of statements, I know. I had a very political head at the time and tried to keep abreast of the social strife going on in the Middle East via web boards and whatever CNN sputtered out. Namely, I had heard of Osama bin Laden prior to 9/10. Call it cynical, but at the time with all my nascent Wolf Blitzer-esque bravado, I wasn’t surprised by the attacks. I didn’t really suspect a home invasion at the time, but I wasn’t surprised that it eventually happened. To me, it was only a matter of time before the fit hit the shan, all the US’ (let’s call it out) mucking about in the Mideast where we clearly had not been wanted. On this level however, it was awesome (and by the way, “awesome” does not automatically mean “cool” you hipster f*cks).
As I said, I was terribly cynical at the time. I don’t remember driving to work that day, but I do remember having to stop at a gas station for cigarettes or something…
Look, I was going to share a bit of personal shame here about what I said to the lady clerk about the attacks, but hindsight is 20/20, and I was completely insensitive. No. I was a dick. And after watching World Trade Center, I feel like more of a dick than ever.
But this is a good thing…
Tuesday, September 11th, 2001. New York. Jet airliners have crashed into the World Trade Centers. Lower Manhattan is in utter chaos. What should’ve turned out to be a routine day for Port Authority police officers Sgt. John McLoughlin (Cage), Officer Willy Jimeno (Peña) and the rest of their fellow cops has turned into the most urgent, most dire assignments they have ever faced.
McLoughlin and the rest of his first responders are called in on crowd control and to make sure WTC 1 is evacuated safely. Unbeknownst to McLoughlin, this was not an accident; the towers were specifically sighted, and the structural integrity of the building has been compromised beyond expectation. The tower falls, but not before McLoughlin and crew escape to safety of the elevator towers as the building comes crashing down around them.
Hours later, the officers wake up trapped and pinned down by rubble. McLoughlin, Jimeno and others are alive, but barely. Choking on the remains of the building, hopelessly trapped, and slowly having their strength winnowing away, its up to a helpless McLoughlin to keep his men alive on morale alone until a rescue team comes to extricate them from the bowels of the fallen buildings. If they can find them in time, if at all…
Oliver Stone’s direction has never been considered subtle. It’s about as delicate as a flying hammer, and plays pretty fast and furious most of the time. Also, he always seems to plug some kind of “social message” in all his movies, cold, hard and calculating. Sometimes this urgency makes for exciting cinema; sometimes it can fly by in a blur tough to digest. World Trade Center is the first Stone flick I have seen that bucks the trend. This movie has nuance, warmth and above all heart. If there is a message here, it is the classic pairing of the triumph of the spirit and the power and strength of family.
It’s a warm film regardless of the tragedy, but Center is not without moments of true tension. It’s tempered by the back and forth dynamic of scenes between the trapped officers and the homefront of their concerned and understandably scared families. It’s not unlike the Shakespearean tactic of bookending scenes of comedy between scenes of tragedy. Now I’m not claiming that Stone is Shakespeare, but Center does have the similar hallmarks of up and down to create good tension as well as good pacing, which the movie has in spades. There is never a dry moment as Stone cranks up the tension to the ultimate release in the end.
It also helps that the script is tight. Center does run perilously close to descending into utter bathos, but what keeps that at bay is the consistent screenwriting. The events of the film were based on the actual accounts of the real McLoughlin and Jimeno, after all. You want to make a movie based on true events, as always, go to the source. This is the sign of a good script; you know the officers got out alive, but the mounting tension keeps you glued. It worked for me.
Center is at its core a family drama. It’s less of a tribute to the fallen, more of testament to the power of love, loyalty and the good old ties that bind. The solidarity between Cage and Peña, struggling to maintain sanity as well as their lives reflects the tight bond that cops, fire fighters, EMTs, etc. create by working as a, well, family. And on the other side of the coin, it’s the families desperately waiting for news of rescue…well, it’s the usual message of families coming together and you know the rest. It’s kinda soft-edged for Stone material, but it’s pulled off pretty well with a minimum of corn.
On the technical side, I’ve always found Stone’s films to have excellent cinematography. The opening montage of pre-attack New York is both breathtaking and charming. Seemingly endless shots of the City in all its clean and grubby glory. Everything in this film seems framed perfectly, and a great lot of the story comes from these images.
However Center is a very difficult film to watch. It isn’t a whole lot of fun (which is I guess expected considering the subject matter). The scene where WTC 1 collapses, it is to rip your armrest to shreds. Seeing Cage and crew pinned in the bowels of the rubble, it exudes helplessness and fear. There is that ever creeping sense of all is lost that pervades the story. At times is feels that the only thing keeping Center aloft is the knowledge that these guys got out alive. It can be uncomfortable.
The only carp I have with this movie is the acting. It comes through as a tad wooden and stereotypes are played up a bit. I’m thinking that part was again a not so subtle effort by Stone to generate sympathy, which would’ve been there all along if the acting was more natural. Let the actors do their thing, Ollie. It’ll happen (I’ve heard Stone is notorious for micromanaging his cast).
Maybe the tepid response to the film was because it was too soon. Made five years after the attacks, the dust still hadn’t settled yet. Crowds probably stayed away for fear it was going to be a typical Stone docudrama about the Taliban’s saber rattling and W’s failure to respond swiftly. It wasn’t, surprisingly so. It was a heartfelt drama with that whole triumph of the human spirit jazz going on. It can come across as cheesy sometimes, but it didn’t here.
I know this review has been a rather sober one, but like everyone else in America, I’ve been living a life post-9/11, in some ways the ultimate flashbulb. If I could go back and smack myself all those years ago, I would. I guess this review is more or less an apology to no one and everyone, and a sign of respect for people who can muster up indomitable strength under the shadow of tragedy.
Don’t worry. Next time out I’ll try to be a bitch.
Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s an emotional roller coaster, but well worth the fare. So watch it with this in mind: I can never apologize enough for the sh*t I said to the lady at the gas station.
- At the time of the attacks, I was working tech support at a mobile phone company. For us, 9/11 was the slowest day ever. It’s still a mystery today for me.
- “God’s will isn’t done for me!”
- I will never forgive the louts who failed to perform sufficient follow-up investigations of the ’93 WTC attacks further than nabbing a few perpetrators. It’s a very black mark on the Clinton administration.
- “We are Marines. You are our mission.” Oo-rah.
- For one of the greatest 9/11 rescue tributes, I highly recommend Vol. 2, #36 of The Amazing Spider-Man from Marvel Comics. Don’t you f*cking laugh.
Robert Redford is all at sea, all alone and seemingly All Is Lost.