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July 8, 2006
Will Stone Screw Up 9/11?

When Oliver Stone first announced that he would make a film about the events of 9/11, many expressed concern and even outrage over the prospect. Stone has made a habit of both politicizing his movies and increasingly relying on strange cinematographic effects to distract from the subject matter. Any Given Sunday probably provides the best example in his later work of the latter criticism; my IMDB review can be read here. The Observer reports that Stone finds himself the center of criticism once again -- but for reasons that have nothing to do with politics or competence:

Despite Stone's insistence that his days of deliberate provocation are behind him, World Trade Center, which opens in US cinemas next month and in the UK on 29 September, has divided the public, critics and academics ahead of its release.

The film, which stars Nicolas Cage as John McLoughlin, one of two New York Port Authority police officers caught up in 9/11, has been attacked in a way that Stone's fellow director Paul Greengrass managed to avoid in his portrayal of circumstances on the doomed Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on 11 September that crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Greengrass's film, United 93, stunned British audiences this year with its documentary style, as if much of it had been filmed in real time. ...

The widows of two Port Authority Police officers who were killed on 11 September have decried Jimeno and McLoughlin, who acted as close advisers to Stone's film, and earned at least $200,000 each for their services. Jeanette Pezzulo, who lives in the Bronx, told the Seattle Times that Jimeno's decision to make the film was hurtful because her husband, Port Authority police officer Dominick Pezzulo, died while trying to free Jimeno and McLoughlin. She said: 'My thing is: this man died for you. How do you do this to this family?'

Her sentiments were echoed by Jamie Amoroso from Staten Island, whose husband also died in the rescue operation. She said: 'I do not need a movie to tell me what a hero my husband was.'

Baltimore detective Ken Nacke, whose brother Louis died on Flight 93, said he would not be going to see the film. He criticised its producers for not involving enough of the survivors' families in its production, something he said did not happen with Greengrass. He added: 'I met a couple of people who lost relatives and had approached the producers and weren't allowed to be involved, and I think it would be disrespectful to them if I went to see it.'

To be honest, I was not looking forward to this movie, given Stone's history of distorting truth to score cheap political points. He did that in Nixon and JFK, and I have no stomach to see another Stone exploitation job. I'm not sure that's what's happening here, though. While it seems a bit strange to focus on a story on the fringes of the historical events of the day when so few efforts have been made to tell the main story, it doesn't mean that the tale of Jimeno and McLoughlin won't have emotional impact and make a good film. In a way, I'd prefer that Stone focus on that than attempt to tell the macro story -- because that carries less risk of mischief in Stone's normal manner of filmmaking. Not every film on 9/11 has to be comprehensive in scope, and even United 93 focused on one part of the day.

One aspect of the film I found disturbing from the Observer story was the lack of the footage of the aftermath of the attack. To me, that smacks of a passive attempt to water down the human cost of the attack. Networks still embargo the shots of people jumping or falling from the Twin Towers, ostensibly out of respect for the victims but more likely to allow Americans to emotionally disengage from the horror of the consequences of the most successful attack on our soil. United 93 chose a different path; it did not shy away from showing the humanity of the people caught on the plane, and the final scene showed the spiraling approach of the Pennsylvania countryside in a manner that brought back all of the horror we felt when we heard what happened on that flight.

Still, it seems to me that the criticisms of Stone in the Observer piece seem a little overblown. Two of the 9/11 widows have an understandable frustration about the focus of the two survivors while their dead husbands -- who died trying to save Jimeno and McLoughlin -- apparently get short shrift from the script. Stone should have done more to include their stories, if the final film does not show it. However, paying Jimeno and McLoughlin $200K as technical consultants hardly qualifies as "cashing in". These films take at least a couple of years to produce, and as the producer notes, that's not much in terms of a wage for the demands on their time. Studios routinely pay much more than that just to get the rights for a story.

If these are the worst criticisms that Stone gets for his new film, it would be a huge improvement on his more political projects. We can wait to see what Stone has created before we start attacking it. Perhaps, though, Hollywood will finally see fit to tell the macro story of 9/11 honestly and in full, even if Stone preferred to avoid it.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 8, 2006 10:01 PM

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