A.O. Scott: Pinned Under the Weight of Skyscrapers and History in World Trade Center





How will Hollywood respond? This question began to surface not long after the Sept. 11 attacks — shockingly soon after, if memory serves.

It was impossible to banish the thought, even in the midst of that day’s horror and confusion, that the attacks themselves represented a movie scenario made grotesquely literal. What other frame of reference did we have for burning skyscrapers and commandeered airplanes? And then our eyes and minds were so quickly saturated with the actual, endlessly replayed images — the second plane’s impact; the plumes of smoke coming from the tops of the twin towers; the panicked citizens covered in ash — that the very notion of a cinematic reconstruction seemed worse than redundant. Nobody needed to be told that this was not a movie. And at the same time nobody could doubt that, someday, it would be.

And now, as the fifth anniversary approaches, it is. For a while a lot of movies seemed to deal with 9/11 obliquely or allegorically. But Paul Greengrass’s “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center,” rather than digging for meanings and metaphors, represent a return to the literal.

Both films revisit the immediate experience of Sept. 11, staking out a narrow perspective and filling it with maximum detail. Mr. Stone, much of whose film takes place at ground zero, does not share Mr. Greengrass’s clinical, quasi-documentary aesthetic. His sensibility is one of visual grandeur, sweeping emotion and heightened, sometimes overwrought, drama.

There are many words a critic might use to describe Mr. Stone’s films — maddening, brilliant, irresponsible, provocative, long — but subtle is unlikely to be on the list. Which makes him the right man for the job, since there was nothing subtle about the emotions of 9/11. Later there would be complications, nuances, gray areas, as the event and its aftermath were inevitably pulled into the murky, angry swirl of American politics. But that is territory Mr. Stone, somewhat uncharacteristically, avoids....

In the Sept. 11 of “World Trade Center,” feeling transcends politics, and the film’s astonishingly faithful re-creation of the emotional reality of the day produces a curious kind of nostalgia. It’s not that anyone would wish to live through such agony again, but rather that the extraordinary upsurge of fellow feeling that the attacks produced seems precious. And also very distant from the present. Mr. Stone has taken a public tragedy and turned it into something at once genuinely stirring and terribly sad. His film offers both a harrowing return to a singular, disastrous episode in the recent past and a refuge from the ugly, depressing realities of its aftermath.

Related Links

  • 9/11: Five Years Later

  • Teaching About 9-11



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