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Most artists believe that no movie, regardless of its subject matter, is above critical scrutiny, and that would include depicting such horrific events as the Holocaust. But how about Hollywood's first major movies about 9/11: Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center?
Both movies have elicited mixed feelings, raising significant questions about dramatizing tragedies as entertaining fare. Are the movies too much? Too soon? Is the American public ready to see 9/11 films? How much fictionalization is tolerable for dramatic purposes? What's the "proper" way to commemorate national disasters?
Ultimately, both U93 and WTC tackle issues of reel versus real politics, politics of representation versus politics of entertainment.
The cycle of Hollywood 9/11 movies has just begun and there will be more if the first ones are commercially successful. Prior to U93, there were two American TV shows about the subject: A&E's Flight 93 and the Discovery Channel's docudrama The Flight That Fought Back. The ratings for both shows were good, indicating the public's readiness to relive the 9/11 ordeal onscreen.
In U93, Greengrass shows ultra-concern for authentic recreation of the horrendous experience, and his sensitivity to honor both the heroic passengers and their loved ones who survived, results in a gut-wrenching cinema verite style feature.
U93 is effective as a reminder of that fateful morning when innocent passengers embarked on United 93 from Newark to San Francisco, in one of the four airplanes hijacked by terrorists. Greengrass doesn't mythologize the passengers by elevating them to heroic saints. Rather, his film is down to earth and as factual as possible, refraining from melodrama and sentiment even when the situation calls for it.
However, the extraordinary restraint, the attention to detail, the aviation and military personnel (some playing themselves) in the cast, and the lack of individual characters turn U93 into a movie that hovers between docudrama and fiction, sociology and cinema.
Unfolding in real time once the plane is airborne, the movie opens with the terrorists going through their morning prayers and the passengers preparing for another routine flight. Later, the only cut-aways in the movie are from the flight to the Air Traffic Control Centers. The film depicts the frantic calls the passengers made via cell and air phones to the "outside world" alerting about the attack and bidding farewell to their loved ones at home.
The movie's first haunting image occurs when the second plane crashes into the World Trade Center and an officer claims he's unable to defend the Eastern seaboard with only four fighter planes. U93 implies, but doesn't state, a case of professional misconduct and improper communication between the various agencies.
The most exciting sequences capture the chaos on the plane when the passengers realize what's going on. It's mesmerizing to observe how an aggregate of strangers coalesces into a social group, how through channels of interpersonal communication - whispering from row to row, deciding on action lines, killing two of the terrorists - the passengers fight back, causing the aircraft to crash in Pennsylvania.
Employing a hyper-realistic style and fast pacing, Greengrass has said, "I want to put the viewers on the flight so that they experience viscerally what the passengers must have endured during those 81 minutes."
The ensemble of "no-name" cast, including some replaying real-life roles, add to the unflinching rawness. Among those are Ben Sliney, the Federal Aviation Administration's national operations manager, an adviser on the film who began his job on Sept. 11, and Major James Fox.
Since no one knows what exactly happened, U93 is an informed speculation, based on research and cumulative evidence, with inferences made and composites constructed for dramatic effect. Letting the story speak for itself, Greengrass has deliberately made a chaotic, even shapeless movie.
U93 is dedicated to all those who lost their lives on 9/11. However, some of the postscripts prove annoying, such as a note that the military defied President Bush's order at 10:18 a.m. to engage the flight, and that it took two hours for air traffic, in and out of the US, to be shut down.
WTC has a larger scope than U93, though like that film, it mostly recreates events and characters without much commentary or editorializing. The most controversial element about WTC is how conventional it is. The movie is at once a commemoration of lost lives and a hopeful message saga about American courage. This is surprising, coming from Stone, one of the few political filmmakers and a master of controversy responsible for such hot-button pictures as J.F.K. and Natural Born Killers.
On September 11, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), an officer with the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD), was tempted to take a personal day and enjoy bow hunting, but then decided that he would rather go to work. Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), a respected PAPD vet, had been up for hours, a requirement of his daily trek from the burbs to the city. Will and John and their colleagues made their way to midtown Manhattan, just like they did on any routine day - only 9/11 was not any other day.
A team of five PAPD men, including Will and John, went into the buildings and were trapped when the towers collapsed. Miraculously, both men survived, though they were pinned beneath slabs of concrete and metal 20 feet below the rubble field. For the next 12 harrowing hours, Will and John kept each other alive by talking about their families, their work on the force, and their hopes and disappointments.
Stone says that, "Being entrusted with this story by the real people dictated my responsibility to be as authentic and accurate as possible, and to get it right."
Digging deep into the hole, literally and figuratively, Stone depicts two men in their darkest hours, hardly knowing each other and yet intimately bonded by their experience - the survival of one depends on the other's.
WTC also tells the stories of the men's wives, Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and their families that suffered in their own circle of hell, with no information about their loved ones. Then, one courageously determined Marine went down on a mission and rescued the men.
WTC began its cinematic life when producer Debra Hill read about McLoughlin and Jimeno in a newspaper article. After meeting the two, Hill was so emotional that she decided their story would make a fascinating movie. Producer Michael Shamberg notes that, "The story of McLoughlin and Jimeno and the people who rescued them is not the only story of the day of 9/11, but it is one story that speaks to the larger issue of how on a terrible day, people found reserves of strength and goodness and helped each other at great personal cost."
A native New Yorker, Stone, who had not shot in the city since his 1987 film Wall Street, found it "invigorating to go back to New York and be with the policemen, firemen, and working guys." Everyone seemed to go out of their way, he says, particularly at the Port Authority, which became their base.
WTC offers a chance for Stone to explore the themes that have defined his career, as he says: "To treat 9/11 in this very personal, exact and austere way, really interested me. I tried to make as realistic a film as possible: Two men buried in the middle of those towers. What makes a person survive these horrible circumstances?
"These men were pushed to the edge of death, yet both survived because of deeply spiritual reasons. They would have died had they not been able to reach out and communicate with each other, and then find deep sources of strength in their family lives."
For Stone, WTC is not a political film but a human story. "I've never done only political movies," he says. "I've directed a musical biography, a football story, a financial one, a satire, film noir, and historical epic. With each film, I've tried a different outlook and style."
Stone and his characters are not concerned with politics per se, as he observes: "Although my politics and their politics are different, it didn't matter. I can make a movie about their experiences because they went through something I can understand. Politics does not enter into the movie, which is about courage and survival."
In this regard, WTC represents a reaffirmation of the American family as the bastion of good patriotic values, as Stone notes: "On a day when we came so close to losing faith in humanity, they helped give that faith back to us."