Up From the Ashes

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What a strange, sobering trip it must have been for the sporadically talented blowhard Oliver Stone and the solipsistic role stylist Nicolas Cage to efface their outsize personalities and make a film like World Trade Center. No speed-freak editing. No lefty tub-thumping. No conspiracy theories. Just a celebration of American valor in the face of devastation. Why not accentuate the positive?

Their film is gripping—and should be: It has its tentacles around you from its stark title on. It’s a title that means so many things to so many people. The mass murder of civilians in the world’s greatest metropolis. The arrogance of Western global financial markets. And now, an uplifting tale of two people who weren’t vaporized along with nearly 3,000 others. It is, as the ads say, “a true story of courage and survival.”

The men are two of New York’s (and New Jersey’s) Finest: Port Authority police officers John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña, the beleaguered Latino locksmith in last year’s Crash), part of a team that’s going into Tower One to rescue trapped inhabitants. In the underground concourse, McLoughlin improvises: There’s no plan, and he can’t even confirm that the second tower has been hit. He certainly has no inkling that the random explosions and groans of steel he hears are harbingers of the implosion to come.

Those sounds are probably the scariest thing in the movie—the death rattles not just of one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers but of American impregnability. Stone and his ­cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, view that terrible morning with the heightened clarity of grief; the cops and firemen who move in and out of the frame—amid pieces of paper that flutter down like confetti—already seem like ghosts.

The opening makes you think World Trade Center might be a Towering Inferno kind of disaster picture, but Stone backs off from spectacle. There’s almost no carnage. We don’t see the planes hit—only the shadow of one over the Port Authority. The collapse of both towers is experienced from inside, a massive boom and then a lethal shower of steel and concrete. For most of the film, we’re with McLoughlin and Jimeno (the camera tight on their faces) as they lie pinned under slabs, waiting for help, talking about their wives and children—anything to keep from losing consciousness.

That’s when Stone cuts to their spouses in their respective towns—Maria Bello as Donna McLoughlin and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the very pregnant Allison Jimeno, both nearly going mad as they hold out for word of their husbands. Bello’s escalating anger is deeply affecting, and Gyllenhaal uses her natural spaciness to suggest how a woman in her third trimester in that situation might be half in and half out of her body.

But I was disturbed by this sudden shift in the movie’s scale, and not just because these scenes are so soap-opera manipulative. It was because my thoughts kept drifting to the tens of thousands of others (spouses, children, parents) who feared the worst and would hear the worst—or nothing at all, because the bodies of their loved ones would never be recovered. A true story of courage and survival, yes. But viewing the destruction of the World Trade Center—in a film called World Trade Center—through this kind of prism represents a distinctly Hollywood brand of tunnel vision.

There have been positive stories in the aftermath of 9/11 with more resonance; I recently watched an amateurish but touching documentary called The Heart of Steel that depicts the network of volunteers that sprang up to supply firemen and other workers at ground zero. The rescuers who risked their lives to hunt for survivors and remains are represented in World Trade Center, but most of these portraits have a familiar, inspirational tone. The exception is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a ­deeply religious ex-Marine who feels called by God to the smoking ruins. The film is better for the ambivalence with which Stone frames him, as both a valiant savior and a monomaniac—a Holy Warrior.

Watching World Trade Center, I thought of several prominent critics who argued that United 93 was little more than a conventional Hollywood heroism saga in vérité-documentary clothing, and that the painstaking absence of politics was a mark of ­gutlessness rather than principle. It’s true the filmmakers didn’t frame 9/11 in the context of a larger geopolitical struggle—that they left to Syriana. Nor did they remind us that President Bush had been briefed a month earlier about bin Laden’s determination to strike in the United States—that they left to Michael Moore. But United 93 did lay out, in haunting detail and with stunning immediacy, the lack of military preparedness, the garbled lines of government communication, and the absence, for all practical purposes, of a commander in chief. If it was indeed a saga of heroism, its heroes weren’t conventionally introduced, and all, unconventionally, perished. Unless you subscribe to the Oliver Stone–like conspiracy theory that U.S. warbirds shot down the plane, United 93 was a fitting monument to people who turned out to be Washington, D.C.’s last and only line of defense.

Now, World Trade Center: That’s a conventional heroism saga. And it raises an important question: Is reframing 9/11 in terms of individual stories of courage a necessary stage in our collective healing or a denial of the deeper and more enduring ramifications of that day? All I know is that Oliver Stone has picked a funny time to be apolitical.

Downbeat as it is, Half Nelson is a genuinely inspirational film—a terrifically compelling character study and a tricky exploration of the links (and busted links) between the personal and the political. Ryan Gosling plays Dan Dunne, a flamboyant ­inner-city junior-high-school teacher whose drug addiction—like his disillusion—is snowballing. In class, he hammers home a dialectical view of historical change, championing men and women who dared to stand up against systemic injustice. Then, after dismissing his (inept) girls’ basketball team, he smokes crack in a locker-room stall, where he’s discovered by one of his students, Drey (Shareeka Epps). The girl, whose estranged father never arrived to pick her up, is puzzled to see her teacher semi-stuporous—and yet her face settles quickly into something harder. For her, this is the way of the world.

A young African-American girl who rescues her white teacher while he rescues her: The heart-warmer formula dangles right before our eyes, like a rope ladder to la-la land. But not once do the director, Ryan Fleck, and co-screenwriter, Anna Boden, take the easy way out. Half Nelson is rooted in a world in which people rarely save themselves or anyone else, even when they know the same Hollywood formulas we do.

As he proved in The Believer, Gosling has the stuff to be a major actor. Here, he flashes an awful lot of aren’t-I-adorable movie-star grins—except the act meshes perfectly with the character, who uses his adorableness to keep the world at bay. ­Gosling’s sense of proportion is uncanny; in this role he’s light, even breezy, but so raw you can read every twitch of his wiry frame. Much of Epps’s performance consists of watching him, and her face is so fascinating that we begin to watch her in the same way—watching to see how much of herself Drey will decide to reveal. It’s the best kind of drama—dialectical on the outside and the inside.

Another multiracial indie film, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s Quinceañera, has a setting, L.A.’s Echo Park, that deprives us of our bearings: a mix of close-knit Mexican-American clans (who initiate their 15-year-old daughters into womanhood with a religious quinceañera ceremony) and wealthier whites who’ve arrived in the wake of gentrification. For Carlos (Jesse Garcia), living with his elderly great-uncle after his parents ejected him for his (unconsummated) homosexuality, gentrification is a mixed blessing. His uncle’s gay landlords regard him as studly dark meat and initiate him into the fold, but their economic privileges also enable them to destroy his surrogate family—which includes a cousin (Emily Rios) banished from her parents’ house after getting pregnant. The resolution to the girl’s problem is a mite tidy, but the movie does a good job of capturing how ostracism and liberation are sides of the same spinning coin.

Tisch alum Ryan Fleck and Columbia grad Anna Boden worked on a student film before shooting their first draft of Half Nelson, called Gowanus, Brooklyn. That short, starring Shareeka Epps, won a 2004 Sundance Jury Award and landed them a marquee name: Ryan Gosling. The heartthrob even went into a Brooklyn public school for research, but “the girls kept trying to hand him copies of The Notebook,” Fleck says, “so that ended pretty quickly.”

World Trade Center
Directed by Oliver Stone. Paramount. PG-13.

Half Nelson
Directed by Ryan Fleck. Thinkfilm. R.

Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Sony Pictures Classics. R.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Up From the Ashes