Like most Americans, I know exactly where I was on September 11, 2001, when I first heard that a plane had crashed into New York’s soaring World Trade Center. I know where I was then, and where I was not long later when television reported sequentially that a second jet had slammed into the huge silver towers and another into the Pentagon and a fourth into a Pennsylvania field. That evening, my wife Joyce and I held hands as we watched the repeated replays of people falling from the sky and then the giant skyscrapers from which they jumped collapsing in a deadly avalanche of steel and stone hurtled to earth in a shroud of poisonous white smoke. We cried uncontrollably that night, and we cried again in the days ahead, more than once, as we learned of the incredible courage of the firefighters still going up when the towers fell and of the passengers on United Flight 93 who figured out what their hijackers were up to and fought back, saving a Washington target, perhaps our nation’s capitol, perhaps the White House. Because of still raw emotions, Joyce chose not to go with me to see either United 93,writer/director Paul Greengrass’s dramatization of events on the fourth plane, or World Trade Center, director Oliver Stone’s reenactment of the fate of two policemen trapped in the rubble at Ground Zero. So I had to see these painful movies alone, in this trying year after Hurricane Katrina changed the fate of my New Orleans hometown and made my weeping at our mass helplessness commonplace. And in the darkened theaters of both films, I cried again.
In the days shortly before I went to see Stone’s film, I spoke with a New York friend who declared that she had not seen United 93 nor did she plan to see World Trade Center. Her concerns were with neither picture’s artistry nor with either’s accuracy, but rather with what she regarded as their untimeliness. Her husband worked in New York’s financial district, and though he escaped, both spouses remain deeply affected by what he and their city endured during the attack and its horrifying aftermath. For them, and for our country as well, they believe, it is simply to soon to revisit the horrors of that infamous day. I would submit, however, that for a desperately fleeting time, 9/11 demonstrated something enduringly important to us all, something we too quickly and easily forget. For President George Bush and his two key advisers, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the lessons of 9/11 have been practiced in the armed exertion of national might, a failed hunt for perpetrators in Afghanistan, and the increasingly controversial invasion of Iraq. However, as emerges from the selective stories in United 93 and World Trade Center about human beings who experienced the horror first hand, the lessons of 9/11 suggest something quite different than that which has subsequently fanned the flames of religious, cultural, and ethnic enmity across the globe.
Though it did not bill itself this way, United 93 is fundamentally a docudrama. Its length approximates real time, and in some instances director Greengrass employed individuals to play themselves and replicate their actions on that fateful day. Unlike World Trade Center, which sees its central characters as people in a specific, familial, and professional context, United 93 confines itself to the very kind of impersonal association airline travel produces. People are large or small, well-dressed or casual, grouchy or chatty or reserved. We are not told where they come from or where they are going. These are the people all of us encounter every time we fly; these are the people who we are to those who fly with us.
Greengrass could have screwed up this film in sundry ways. He could have sensationalized and cheapened what happened on Flight 93, but he gets everything almost exactly right. As much as possible, he sticks to what is known and reveals developments as they unfolded on the day the series of horrors took place. Much of the picture’s tension arises not directly from what Greengrass depicts but from what we know is about to happen. I found myself agonized over a series of mundane events. When the gate agent closes the plane’s door, I couldn’t help but flinch knowing that it will never open again. When flight attendants pass out beverages, I couldn’t help but wince understanding that this will be the last earthly nourishment these people will know. Because there is so much tension inherent to the material, Greengrass eschews many established film techniques. He infrequently employs musical cues, and he wisely chose to use, instead of a lineup of stars, a cast of unknowns, people with average faces who are appropriate for everyday passengers about to be summoned to act in extraordinary circumstances.
Greengrass does, however, exercise the cross-cutting strategy that is standard to thrillers. Our focus is inside the cabins of Flight 93, but the director takes us to several air traffic control locations, to a military air defense base, and to the Federal Aviation Agency where National Operations Manager Ben Sliney (playing himself) tries to makes sense of the bewildering series of unprecedented events. In case we have forgotten, United 93 makes clear how extensively our reactions were ruled by confusion and how quickly our response surrendered to chaos. Planes are lost off radar. Officials suspect that planes still in the air or already safely on the ground have been hijacked when they haven’t been. Information sent to pilots, such as those on Flight 93, doesn’t provide a clear warning, which, if it had, might have saved this one flight at least. Fighter jets fly off in the wrong direction; others take off unarmed, giving rise to talk of having them crash into hijacked planes. Though they don’t know which planes have been hijacked and which have not, the military wants permission to shoot down commercial jets, but only the President can grant them permission. And in a stroke of unclear good fortune, the President, after the painfully inactive minutes documented by Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 spent reading a story to school children, is himself fleeing aboard Air Force One and cannot be reached. But before it’s too late, the passengers of United Flight 93,huddled together in the back of the plane, talking on air and cell phones, learn about the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and figure that their only chance is to retake the plane. In a scene of heartbreaking truth, they contact their family members to speak their love and say goodbye.
And then they make their rush, men and women, young and not so young together. Their end is in fire. And it is never clear that they entirely understand what their struggle saves. But the fact of their struggle, their willingness to act, is a challenge to all of us who survive them.
Written by Andrea Berloff, World Trade Center is the story of two New York City policemen and their families. Like the story of those aboard United Flight 93, this story also is true, and its factual faithfulness has been praised by those upon whose lives it is based. On September 11, 2001, Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and his police unit are posted as usual at the Port Authority. Their job is to protect citizens against pickpockets and aggressive panhandlers and help tourists with directions. When the first plane slams into the North Tower, John and his men are dispatched to Ground Zero where information is scarce and responsibilities unclear. The North Tower is on fire, but beyond that the policemen don’t know what is true and what is merely rumor. The sergeant decides that he needs to organize a rescue squad and secures a half dozen volunteers from among his men. Stone orchestrates this scene with care. John is not gung ho. He gives no rousing speech about duty or valor. He makes no attempt to cajole the willing or shame the reticent. He cannot know what is about to happen, in fact cannot imagine what will happen, but he is well enough aware that the danger he is facing is considerable. Danger occasionally comes with his job, and doing his job defines the man he sees himself to be. Still, he does not impose his own principles on the officers before him. In this extraordinary situation, he doesn’t order men to accompany him; he lets them choose. Some elect, understandably enough, not to volunteer, while others step forward to join him.
Under John’s direction, this ad hoc unit of policemen assumes the role we associate with the fire department. The officers outfit themselves with oxygen tanks, rain slickers, and other gear necessary for a successful ascent and rescue operation. They are still in the mezzanine when the South Tower comes crashing down on top of them. In the chaos, John and his men are unaware that a second plane has crashed into the Center or that the huge towers themselves have started to collapse. They presume the cave-in has affected only their own location. John is trapped beneath the rubble not far from two of his men who also survive the initial collapse. Officer Dom Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) is killed a short time later when the North Tower falls. The story that follows develops as John and rookie Officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) encourage one another to endure the horror of being buried alive. They talk to stave off sleep from which they might never wake. They barely know each other, but they share in the dark what busy, impersonal time in the light might always have kept separate. They can neither see nor touch each other, but in sharing they become intimate, glad at least that if they must die, they will do so in the bond of friendship. Away from Ground Zero, the film also chronicles the helplessness of wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the two officers’ children, and their extended families. Donna and Allison have lessons to learn this day as well about how often all of us let the insignificant aggravations of grinding daily routine blur our vision to what really matters.
The acting in World Trade Center is solid throughout, though one may wonder about the decision to cast such Hollywood beauties as Bello and Gyllenhaal. One might also puzzle over an actor of Cage’s animation accepting a role in which, for most of the picture’s running time, he cannot move or even fully show his face. Moreover, director Stone keeps so tightly focused on his immediate human stories that he fails to provide us a desired broader context. We are not quite sure how much time passes, what is going on outside, or what kind of challenges rescuers face atop the pile. In this regard, Greengrass does a better job of connecting the immediate story to the larger one. In World Trade Center, when incredibly brave men like Scott Strauss (Stephen Dorff) and Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley) manage to slither down to the victims amid the shifting matchsticks of massive steel beams and unstable boulders of concrete, the film does not capture their peril in the way it probably should. Even the McLoughlin and Jimeno families have wondered whether the selfless courage of men like Strauss and Sereika, among others, has been given its due.
These are ephemeral complaints, however. For what Stone does accomplish is far more important than any minor failing. He starts the picture in the early morning at the McLoughlin and Jimeno homes. September 11, 2001, is just another day for average people going about the ordinary activities of their work and family lives. McLoughlin and Jimeno represent all the 2,749 human beings doing their jobs who died in the World Trade Center that day. At the same time, Stone lets his images register how the events of 9/11 happened to all of America. As Will drives to work, he listens to a country ballad singing of “the promised land. ”The Statue of Liberty is spotted through a windshield. And the stark architectural simplicity of the soaring towers themselves testifies to a nation’s utilitarian self-confidence, can-do energy, and economic might.
In the main,though, World Trade Center is about America as a whole only in that it is about its everyday people, about two men doing their jobs, and the family circles from which they hail. Most Americans work hard. We benefit from that labor in our prosperity. But we pay for our prosperity in the diminished time we are able to give to our loved ones. John and Will understand this sacrifice with great clarity as they lie crushed under concrete and steel, choking on dust and soot. Their thoughts turn little to career ambitions, extensively to wives and children. Will manages to scribble a love note to his wife, a feat he knows may be his last communication with the world. And we can’t help but notice how the reactions and concerns of John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno mirror those of others caught in the maelstrom that day. Cell phones let those on United 93 reach out one last time. Emergency telephone operators were swamped with pleas by those trapped high in the doomed towers to convey words of love to spouses and family members and friends.
Focus On The Lesson
As are most acts of terrorism, the attacks of September 11,2001,were examples of violence as political expression. Terrorism most certainly is political, and because that is understood, many viewers will be struck by the absence of much that is political in either of these two films. Greengrass keeps politics outside his film, because he tries to restrict events to what people knew in the fleeting minutes between the time when Flight 93 backed away from the departure gate and when it crashed in a grassy Pennsylvania field.
Given his long history of film work from Salvador to Platoon to JFK to Nixon, it is more surprising that Stone keeps politics to a minimum. But his overall strategy is similar to Greengrass’s. McLoughlin and Jimeno enter the World Trade Center with a minimum of information. When the first building falls on them, they haven’t a clue that Al Qaida is responsible. And the elusive political goals of Islamic jihad are far from the concerns of the two officers’ families who are worried only about their loved ones’ survival and recovery.
The one political note in World Trade Center is sounded by a character named David Karnes (Michael Shannon). We meet Karnes in a church where he announces that he is going to do something to help find survivors at Ground Zero. We see him next in a marine uniform, bluffing his way past check points and wandering about on top of the smoky rubble where he is among the first to hear McLoughlin and Jimeno’s cries. In the end, the billows of hell puffing past his shadowed face, he speaks the attitude the Bush administration has turned into policy: “We’re going to need a lot of good men over there to avenge this. ”Though Stone mostly steers his film away from the political fray, one can’t help but note that we first meet Karnes while he is praying and that this man of active Christian faith is the one character in the film who fails to perceive the prevalent lesson at hand.
Interestingly, some controversy has arisen over the way Greengrass chose to begin his film, with the hijackers as they dress for their last day, pray, read the Koran, and chant over its verses. Some viewers have found this a misguided attempt at politically correct cultural and religious “balance” that proves disrespectful of the victims. I reacted differently. I presumed these scenes, like the whole of the film, were based on careful research. And rather than making me angry, these early passages left me infuriatingly sad, these ritual preparations of presumably intelligent men to commit mass murder in the name of God. I am a Christian believer who nonetheless presumes that the vastness of a benevolent God affords many ways to be known by so limited creatures as our various human selves. But no God worth worshipping condones, much less summons, the taking of innocent life. Yet, history is so gorged with the cruel acts of men who think they have God’s blessing to shed the blood of others that I find myself ever more attracted to John Lennon’s summons to “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.”
The ultimate message is rendered only implicitly in both these works, but more consciously, I think, in World Trade Center than in United 93. In the former, John says something that flies into my heart like a burning arrow of wisdom, a hot reminder of what I, like others, really do know instinctively, but so easily overlook in my daily life. A few years ago, I was on a flight from Chicago to New Orleans when my plane suddenly went into a 27,000-foot nose dive from 35,000 to 8,000 feet. Flight attendants later explained that the plane had lost its pressurization and that the pilots had dived to protect themselves from blacking out, which could have happened in a matter of seconds and would have resulted in our plane’s inevitable crash. They didn’t have time for a warning, and along with my fellow passengers, as the jet screamed toward a rising earth, I thought I was going to die. I recall with great clarity exactly what I thought as I anticipated so swift and unexpected an end: “I hope Joyce knows how much I loved her.” John McLoughlin, I think, puts its better when he says, “I just hope that I have loved my wife enough.” Amidst the suffering and sadness, outrage and horror, that is the lesson of 9/11. That is what United 93 teaches and World Trade Center urges we not forget. Stone’s marine speaks for the government, but his policeman speaks for the people. What is finally important to us, is those we love, not those we hate.
Fredrick Barton was born and raised and has lived most of his life in New Orleans. A year after Hurricane Katrina, he and his wife Joyce are still struggling to repair their house which flooded with four feet of water. They are lucky compared to countless friends and fellow citizens whose homes are irreparably damaged and whose livelihoods have been destroyed. Barton is film critic for Gambit Weekly and author of the novels The El Cholo Feeling Passes, Courting Pandemonium, With Extreme Prejudice, and A House Divided, which won the William Faulkner Prize for fiction. He is Professor of English and Provost at the University of New Orleans.