I was sitting there, in my local Century 12, it was the 1 PM show, and the only other people in the vast theatre were two senior citizens, white-haired ladies in matching pink jogging suits who kept up this low, whispery conversation all through the previews. I didn't really want to be there, but I felt I had to see this movie, I felt it was somehow important.
This year, I happened to be in New York when "World Trade Center" movie opened, and I only just realized that I was holding my breath, waiting for the bad reviews. I have known New York friends to make the most vicious fun of Oliver Stone - he's the kind of director everyone loves to kick for his excesses. But when this movie opened, in New York, the reaction I saw was one of - reverence? It was August, a full month before the anniversary of Sept. 11. I saw people lined up on street corners to see this movie.
As for myself, I kept saying I would get to it. And then finally I ran out of excuses.
And in fact, this movie - this movie seemed to have been made by a completely different director from the one who made "Platoon." I sat there, not quite able to wrap my mind around the warp speed with which Oliver Stone seemed to have transmuted from the stridently anti-war, anti-military rebel of that earlier movie to this one, which shows an ex-Marine, standing in an IBM-like office, staring at a TV screen and intoning, without a trace of irony, "This means we're at war."
The most moving character in the movie was a rookie Port Authority cop named Will Jimeno. I don't know where they found this actor, but he looks like every young Latino man I've ever taught at Foothill College. The scene where Nic Cage looks at his men and asks for volunteers to go inside the World Trade Center - that scene was saved from extreme corniness by the sheer simplicity of this actor's "I'll do it, sarge." (The other two volunteers, one Rodrigues and another O'Reilly, were too stalwart in their "I'll do it" phrasing.)
Then, the cuts back and forth to the anguished families. In the "United Flight 93" A & E movie, one of the things which made it so awful to me was the way in which the camera cut constantly to the families on the ground. I mean, honestly, when you have a band of plucky airline passengers undergoing mortal peril, you don't need to
hear the voices of their crying families to underscore the fact that they are in mortal peril. In one of the family scenes, they even show a birthday party in progress, which is totally ridiculous since United 93 took off at 8 or so in the morning, East Coast time, which would have made it 5:30 or 6 a.m. California time. So explain to me how you could have a children's birthday party with balloons and cakes and what-nots - puhleeze!
But here, strangely, the scenes with the frantic wives (played by two fine actresses, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello) were as riveting as the scenes shot at the World Trade Center. And, in the end, I thought to myself how strange it was that the movie seemed so - conventional? Almost the last words in the movie are those of a marine saying, "This doesn't end here. Not until we get the bastards who did this." And off he goes to a tour of duty in Iraq.
WHAT HAPPENED TO Oliver Stone? Did 9/11 turn him into a bleeding-heart pro-war PATRIOT?
In contrast, when I saw "United 93", the Paul Greenglass movie, every moment was so fraught, I felt I could hardly breathe. In the opening scenes, Greenglass chose to focus on the young hijackers. We watch them going through their ritual ablutions and praying in their hotel rooms. All this is very disconcerting. In fact, it's an extremely canny device because the effect it creates is one of incredible, almost unbearable tension, which just builds and builds as the movie progresses. By the end of the movie (and, at the time I saw it, the audience was also composed almost entirely of fragile-looking old people), you could clearly make out, here and there, from different parts of the theatre, deep, guttural groans. They arose spontaneously, but in tandem. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine I was in some OTHER kind of movie - maybe even a porn flick (except that of course the audience would have been from an entirely different demographic). There were no people shouting "Bastards!" at the screen, or even any actors shouting "Bastards" ON the screen, and yet the anguish felt deeper.
In the last scenes of "United 93," the camera is jiggling so much that you can't make out who is doing what. The actors are tumbling and tumbling, impossible to distinguish man from woman, young from old. THAT is what it must have been like in the plane, in the last moments. I left so shaken, it was difficult for me to drive.
THIS movie was different. If anyone doubts how profoundly America has been changed by the events of 9-11, they have only to watch "Platoon." Watch it, and then watch "World Trade Center." It's a complete U-turn
Oliver Stone makes. It's scary, because it's what happened to a lot of us.
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Marianne Villanueva is the author of the short story collections GINSENG AND OTHER TALES FROM MANILA (Calyx Press) and MAYOR OF THE ROSES: STORIES (Miami University Press). Her short story "Mayor of the Roses" was published in Hyphen #6.