August 10, 2006

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Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (PG-13)
World Trade Center (PG-13)
Oliver Stone gives us the horrors of Sept. 11 as viewed from inside the twin towers in World Trade Center, a movie about two real life Port Authority police officers who were stuck in the wreckage after the towers collapsed.

John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) is a Port Authority sergeant who wakes up early and leaves his house and family — wife Donna (Maria Bello) and four kids — and heads into the city for work. As we’ve read and seen so many times, it’s a sunny beautiful fall day, with the biggest news of the morning being a citywide primary and, for the Port Authority workers, an 11-year-old runaway who is expected to arrive by bus some time that day. Will Jimeno (Michael Pena) pays particular interest to that last part, as he is working the bus terminal. Shortly after taking their posts, however, the officers see the shadow of a low flying plane or hear an explosion and are called back to their station from which they are redeployed to the World Trade Center. Like everyone in the country, they don’t really understand what’s going on, in fact it’s not clear if McLoughlin ever really verifies that the second tower is hit. He and a small group of his men head toward the towers with plans to help with the evacuation. They are in the
concourse between the two towers when the first one collapses.

Some men die right away, some during the rain of debris from the second tower to collapse and soon it is only McLoughlin and Jimeno left alive but pinned under, well, two giant buildings. McLoughlin guesses their injuries include internal bleeding and gives them a day at most to live. The key to their survival, he tells Jimeno, will be staying awake. Sleep means death.

Intercut with scenes of their ordeal — in addition to the pain and the fear they feel, the building shifts at times, throwing more dust and chunks of concrete down on them as well as the occasional fire ball — are scenes of their families trying to find out their fate. Donna is with a friend when the friend learns that her husband is safe but Donna can’t find out definitive information about her own husband for hours. Jimeno’s wife Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is pregnant and her family gathers around her, afraid both for Will and for what will happen to her unborn child if she learns he’s dead.

The movie also takes us out to a third layer of people — call them the secondary responders. The biggest personality among this group is Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a former Marine who is in Connecticut at the time of the attacks. Seeing the destruction on television, he dons his uniform and heads to the World Trade Center site where, despite official prohibition against searches of the wreckage (officials feared instability of the pile plus collapse of nearby buildings and pulled police and fire away as night fell), Karnes picks through the twisted metal, calling out to possible survivors.

Karnes is an odd character in this film and one of the few Oliver Stone flourishes — he seems like the Ghost of Vietnams Past, dropping pronouncements about us being “At War” and about how good men will be needed to avenge the horror he sees at the site.

Though the weirdness is more or less contained to Karnes (also a real guy who, according to the end notes, went on to serve two tours in Iraq), Stone’s natural tendency toward strange artistic choices (the flashbacks in Nixon or all of Alexander, for example) and conspiracy have been submerged here and have been replaced by a less off-putting but still unnecessary amount of shmaltz. Perhaps the highest praise I can give this film is that it isn’t as bad as I feared it would be and yet there is still too much melodrama (scores reaching crescendo at particularly sad or uplifting moments, multiple rounds of “tell my wife I love her” with sad music backing it up).

What everyone involved in United 93 seemed to realize is that Sept. 11 is still raw, still horrible. It needs no embellishment. Think of that day and all that happened then and since and you can be moved to tears all on your own, no tear-jerking needed. Stone either does not believe or does not understand this part of his subject and goes big where subtlety would have been just as effective, just as painful. Shots of the men stuck — stuck and for all they know condemned to a slow painful death —are harrowing on their own. Computer-generated shots of the towers in flames, of people jumping, of the wreckage, of the soul-weary rescue workers, of rescue workers and hospital staff desperately hoping for injured people to help but finding instead that the people missing have simply vanished — these scenes are truly, deeply horrible all by themselves. I saw this film at a screening full of people who sucked in their breath and made vague soft grumbles (as you would at the appearance of a villain) when George W. Bush made an onscreen appearance (via archival news reports from the day, the realness of which added to the horror). Not a yellow-ribbon-bumper-sticker crowd, to be sure, but they sobbed throughout the movie because despite what subsequent political debate would have you believe, Sept. 11 is not a Red State tragedy or a Republican tragedy but an American one. One that we all still feel. And we don’t need sun-dappled flashbacks of rosy-cheeked children to remind us that it was sad. B-

— Amy Diaz


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