As a photographer prepares to shoot Oliver Stone in a Toronto hotel room, his personal groomer is issuing specific instructions on just how he should be lit. She says photographers are always trying to make the director look dark and moody, but his new movie, World Trade Center, is so uplifting that he should be shown “in a positive, hopeful light.” It’s easy to see how the 60-year-old filmmaker—with his heavy-set features, jet-black hair and overbearing eyebrows—could be typecast as a force of darkness. Over the course of a career that includes such landmarks as Platoon, Wall Street, JFK and Nixon, Stone has acquired a reputation for making unsubtle dramas thick with political conspiracy. And initially, the notion of an Oliver Stone picture called World Trade Center made a lot of people nervous—including Michael Peña, who stars as one of two cops trapped in the rubble of the twin towers, and Scott Strauss, the NYPD officer who helped rescue Peña’s character in real life. Strauss says that when he first heard Stone was making the movie, “I was right away, ‘Uh oh!’ Red flags were popping up everywhere. This is not going to be good.” But both Peña and Strauss—in Toronto last week with Stone to promote the moviechanged their minds. And with good reason. World Trade Center is not a conspiracy thriller, nor does it carry a political message. It’s a heroic tale of survival scrupulously based on the true story of two New York Port Authority cops, Will Jimeno (Peña) and John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage), who were buried in debris when the towers collapsed. The action cuts between a pocket in the rubble, where the men are trapped, and the outside world, where their wives cling to hope. The film plays as grand Hollywood epic with a swelling score. From rhapsodic scenes of Manhattan coming to life in the dawn light of Sept. 11 to horrific vistas of devastation, there’s an operatic sense of spectacle. But Stone’s approach is more delicate than might be expected. We don’t see a plane hitting the twin towers, just its shadow sweeping over the windows of a midtown skyscraper. World Trade Center is radically different
from United 93, the recent film about the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania —an ensemble drama shot with such documentary realism you forget you’re watching a movie. WTC never lets you forget. As events unfolded on Sept. 11, everyone kept saying it was like a movie, and now that response comes full circle: WTC is a cross between a disaster picture and an old-fashioned combat drama, framed as a heroic memorial.
“United 93 was a brilliant cinéma-vérité,” says Stone. “This is a more traditional Hollywood movie. You get involved with four
characters. It’s like a Wyler movie, or a Ford or a Capra.” The director, whose voice has the honeyed timbre of a late-night deejay, is accustomed to defending himself. “I’ve been pigeonholed as a conspiracy theorist, and even worse, someone fabricating history, which I really resent,” he says. “Movie after movie, we’ve tried to get the truth based on the facts. And we’ve been killed for it. The harder you try, the more you get killed. The irony of my career is that I probably tried the hardest on Alexander to be the most accurate to history. I got kudos from scholars, and we got killed by critics.”
This film may represent a redemption. Two decades after Platoon tried to cauterize the wounds of Vietnam, WTC aims to do the same for 9/11. “If we were raped that day,” says Stone, “and if we’ve created armour around ourselves out of fear, the best place to start is with the day itself. You go to the psychiatrist, he says to you, ‘Who raped you, how did it happen?’ Relive the day and start the process of getting over the fear.”
But Stone made Platoon 18 years after the war had ended; 9/11 is a much fresher trauma. Yet he insists it’s not too soon. “I think it’s way too late,” he says. “Five years after Cambodia, they did The Killing Fields. That was very powerful. You shouldn’t wait too long. People forget, memories are fractured. I had 60 cops and firemen out there fighting over who did what. There was practically a mutiny on the set because the firemen said, ‘We saved John.’ If they made World Trade Center in a few years, it might be a completely different movie. With Pearl Harbor you’d think we won the damn battle the way it was photographed. That’s what happens when you get Pentagon approval. You distort history.” Commemorating the deadliest assault on America since Pearl Harbor, WTC plays like a war movie, right down to its final dedication to “those who fought, died or were wounded on that day.” And some of its characters treat the attack as a call to arms. But Stone says it’s
'I’ve been pigeonholed as a
and even worse, someone
which I really resent'
A former Marine dons his old uniform,
GETS A FRESH BUZZ CUT,
drives his Porsche to Ground Zero and
bluffs his way through the barricades
wrong to see the rescue workers as soldiers, or to appropriate their heroism for the war on terror, as the Bush administration has done.
Strauss, who’s portrayed onscreen by Stephen Dorfif, does not concur. He felt like he was fighting a war. “We had a city to protect,” says the former NYPD officer— a charismatic figure with a crisp military manner and clear blue eyes the calibre of Paul Newman’s. “We were under attack. The Marines weren’t stationed in Lower Manhattan. It was us. It was the New York City cops or nobody. We had the machine guns, we had the sniper rifles. We were gearing up for hand-to-hand combat, ’cause we didn’t know what was going to happen next. There were fighter jets flying over us. We didn’t know if they were ours. We didn’t know what was happening in the rest of New York, or the rest of the world.”
The rescue work was “incredibly dangerous all day long,” adds Strauss, who admits he was “petrified” when he climbed through the hole in the rubble to reach Will Jimeno. The passage was so tight, the policeman had to leave his gear behind. “I took my gun belt off and passed it back and I said goodbye to my wife and kids in my mind. I didn’t think I was coming out. We were going in to die. But if it cost us our lives, it cost us our lives. You had to go in. There was no turning back.” Jimeno and McLoughlin were among just 20 trapped responders who were pulled out of the debris alive. On a rescue mission in the concourse of the World Trade Center, they became victims themselves when the south tower collapsed. The men spent 24 hours buried beneath six metres of rubble, seriously injured. With them was Jimeno’s partner, Dominick Pezzulo, who was initially unhurt. As he struggled to free Jimeno, the second tower collapsed and Pezzulo was crushed by a slab of concrete. Moments before he died, Pezzulo told Jimeno he loved him and discharged his firearm overhead in the hope someone might hear. Pinned under debris, Jimeno and McLoughlin couldn’t see each other, but they could talk. And that’s what they
did to keep from fading away as night fell.
The reality of the hole was worse than it looks in the movie, says Strauss. “Will was much more tightly compacted. He looked like he’d been poured out of a dump truck. We had to twist ourselves around I-beams and debris to get to him.” Pointing to the legs of a small coffee table in the hotel room, Strauss says he had to crawl through openings no wider than that. “We were choking on dust and smoke. There were times when I was on top of Will and couldn’t see him.” But when Strauss complained to the film crew that the set didn’t look grim enough, they told him, “Nobody’s going to look at a black screen.” When your two leads have to spend most of the movie buried in a hole acting from the neck up, it poses a challenge. “This was not an easy film,” says Stone. “This is two heads in a jar. Originally it was too much hole. We cut it down to 35 minutes of hole. And we put more light in. You don’t want to oppress the audience. You have to live with a manageable tension.”
The movie breaks the claustrophobic gloom by cutting to the anguished wives (played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) and their families. “We created antidotes to the hole,”
says Stone. “The movie is a battle between light and dark. The men are slipping into the dark, into Hades, and the light is what brings them back. The wives are living in the light. But the wives die in their own cages at home, in these houses, which become like holes as the light closes down and the day runs out. Those two wives had to accept that their husbands were not coming home.”
Some of the movie’s most improbable scenes are based on fact, such as Jimeno’s vision of a glowing Jesus holding a bottle of water. And the story of how the two men were found is stranger than fiction. Dave Karnes, a former Marine from Connecticut, digs out his old uniform, gets a fresh buzz cut from the barber, drives his Porsche to Ground Zero, bluffs his way through the barricades and starts combing the ruins with a flashlight after many of the rescuers have given up for the night. As portrayed by Michael Shannon in the movie, Karnes comes across as a vigilante CI Joe action figure—a born-again Christian soldier who says things like “We’re going to need some good men out there to avenge this.” Stone says he had to resist pressure to cut that line. “But he represents a significant amount of the American population’s reaction to this event, which is revenge.”
After previewing the movie, the filmmakers put a postscript in the credits to indicate that Karnes actually existed. “People thought we added the Marine story to hype up the movie,” says Stone. “But when you see the guy, he is larger than life. He would be regarded as a nutbag by some. But he found them. There was something weird about this whole story. It’s like a movie. It cries to be told. And it would be a crime not to tell it.” But for some people, it was the other way around. Dominick Pezzulo’s widow accused Jimeno and McLoughlin of cashing in on the tragedy by selling their story to Paramount. And she accused Paramount of exploiting her husband’s death with a graphic scene of him being crushed by debris—the studio softened the scene after her protests. Controversy also erupted last year when Gyllenhaal said that America was “responsible in some way” for the 9/H attacks.
With some reluctance, Stone expressed similar views in our interview. But as a filmmaker for once he has resisted the role of provocateur. Pulled in by the power of a
when Maggie Gyllenhaal said that
AMERICA WAS 'RESPONSIBLE
in some way’ for the 9/11 attacks
strong story—based on testimony far more tangible than the phantoms of history that swirl through Nixon and JFK—he finally lets drama trump politics, and surrenders to the most elemental form of Hollywood mythmaking. Ironically, he’s made a movie that might be equally appreciated by George W. Bush and Michael Moore. Which raises a point: as a monument to American heroism, could WTC bolster the pro-Iraq war sentiments that Stone finds so regrettable?
“Well, that’s exactly the question,” says Stone. “That’s the divide. Platoon could be misunderstood the same way. Certain people could use this movie to say we have to fight the war. But that’s not what it says. If we look at the world today, five years later, the consequences of that day are far worse than that day. More people have died worldwide from terror. If we behave a certain way abroad, there’s going to be payback. We have public beheadings on video, a climate of fear, enormous debt, a basic undermining of the American constitution. That’s another movie.”
In fact, Canadian Paul Haggis (Crash) is preparing to direct a film based on Against All Enemies, the bestselling exposé of pre9/11 misinformation by former White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke. It’s exactly the kind of conspiracy tale you would expect to wind up as an Oliver Stone movie. And Stone does not rule out revisiting Sept. 11 with a more provocative film: “If I find a way in, I’ll do it.” But for now he’s out to promote an uplifting movie.
The photographer has him pose beside the hotel room window. His handler hovers right behind the camera, expressing her approval, as Stone’s face is flooded with light. M
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