10 Years: “World Trade Center”

When a film is based on true events, or inspired by them, whatever the phrasing, a certain amount of care and respect must be taken. When it’s a film about a major national tragedy, and only a few years have passed, the demands are even higher. How do you make a film that honors its subjects enough, without angering people too unnecessarily? It’s a tough balancing act.

The Paramount Pictures film”World Trade Center”, is an emotional film that lures you in and never lets you go, all while keeping a focus on the heroics of those being portrayed.

This drama stars Nicolas Cage (upcoming “Snowden”, “The Trust”), Michael Pena (upcoming “Collateral Beauty”, “Morris & the Cow”), Maggie Gyllenhaal (“Beauty Mark (Short 2016)”, “The Honourable Woman”), Maria Bello (upcoming projects “Goliath”, “Max Steel”), Stephen Dorff (“The Debt”, “American Hero”), Jay Hernandez (“Suicide Squad”, “Bad Moms”), Michael Shannon (upcoming films “Loving”, “Nocturnal Animals”), Donna Murphy (“Mercy Street”, “Hindsight”), and Frank Whaley (upcoming projects “Luke Cage”, “Divorce”).

The film was directed by Oliver Stone (upcoming “Snowden”, “The Untold History of the United States”) and written by Andrea Berloff (upcoming “Blood Father”, “Straight Outta Compton”).

The film originally opened on Aug. 9, 2006.

I’ve put off seeing this film for the past 10 years. I’m not sure why, but there was always something that convinced me not to watch it. So what changed now? It’s been 10 years, and, my favorite reason, it just happened to be on one of those movie channels. How could I not watch this? I surprisingly had the time. I was also going in blind. I don’t think, prior to watching it, that I’d ever watched a trailer for it, and I can’t really recall any of the TV spots that aired at the time. Not a bad way to go into a film I’ve been avoiding for some time. However, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have a good experience or come away thinking it was the best use of your time.

I fortunately wasn’t someone who had a bad experience. I don’t fully know if it was a good use of my time, mainly as I don’t have any intentions of owning it, and in so many ways, I wasn’t wowed by this film. Not because it didn’t deliver something powerful and worth watching at least once, but because it just didn’t stand out to me all that much. There was no true lingering effect. Once I evaluated the film and thought about what it was like, I quickly moved on. Certainly not a good sign.

But that’s all post film, and of course could be different for each person who sees this film. There is one major element that this film excels at, which I think makes watching this film possible, even 15 years after the events depicted, and 10 years after the film’s initial release.

There is a huge emotional toll all around. Every moment is one emotional moment after another, and with good reason. However, I’ve been thinking about it, and it feels different than just because it’s a depiction of a national tragedy. There’s something about the way this film approaches all the drama and emotions needed to tell this story. Sure, in some ways, I guess you could say it’s easier to bring about the various emotions of this event and of what these people went through, but at the same time, if Stone and Berloff hadn’t approached telling this story the way they did, all that emotion and natural drama would’ve come off worse than it did. It would have had a false sense about it. I know some weren’t please with this film upon release, which makes sense, as it was only five years prior that the towers fell. For me, I just would’ve come away thinking they tried too hard and missed a chance at touching on something real.

This film starts off simply drawing you in. How? It’s just another day. And for many, many people, yes, that’s exactly what it was. Another day. Through this you begin to be exposed to Cage and Pena, plus their respective families, as well as the other officers with whom they both work with, and get to know them. All of this builds their characters and the other characters in an organic way. This organic character development lasts through out, but it’s not simply because Berloff is developing a character, based on someone real. I found, especially at the end, that this film was about characters, but in a different way than most dramas, even dramas with fictional terrorist attacks, like “The Kingdom”.

This is about the character all of these men and women have when they go to work knowing each time there could be some danger. This also applies to the other emergency personnel and law enforcement depicted. It’s also about the ways they all work together as a team and support one another. It’s what makes their sacrifices and heroics memorable, especially in the way this film depicts this tragedy.

While this aspect of character and characters takes center stage, there’s still character insights to be had, but even in this, I found there was something deeper occurring than just knowing that these people have personal lives. Again, this is more than just developing likable characters. None of that’s actually needed in this film, which is a huge plus. You get this personal insight even after the film pivots to the views of Bello and Gyllenhaal, along with their friends, which includes Murphy and some others. They’re all listening to the news and afraid, but trying to remain strong and hopeful. It’s clearly the only thing that’s keeping them together emotionally, which on any normal day can’t be easy anyway.

Through this approach to the story, there was also the use of flashbacks for both Cage and Pena, which gives you even more into who they are. It’s this structure that keeps you there and makes it all so deeply personal. You don’t have to have known someone or be a friend of a friend who knew someone that went through this. No, that’s taken care of because of all the organic insights. You never forget who these people are and are that much more invested. For me, I see it in an additional way. I see it relating to how these people are able to do their jobs. What they’re all giving up, or could at any moment. Heroism is rooted in sacrifice. That’s clear, for me. It’s also what gets Cage and Pena through this. Their bond with each other, but also that of their families. It drives them.

All of these elements I’ve now mentioned are what pulled me so completely in, if that hadn’t been evident. Going in blind helped. What also helped, and I think it allowed me to really respond, especially emotionally, is the fact that I’m somewhat new to the events depicted. Yes, by now, I know full well what happened and who’s to blame, plus the other events that have occurred because of this attack, but it’s more specifics.

First off, I was 12 when the attacks occurred, and the only thing I really recall from the day of, let alone subsequent years, is that I was busy getting around for school when “Good Morning America” was broadcasting this devastating breaking news. I don’t think I fully knew what was going on. So, watching this film, in so many ways, was surprising. Stone and Berloff presented this story in a way that allowed viewers to be surprised, even though they knew what was going to happen.

Second, unless it was in some college course I was taking, and even then it was limited, my exposure to archival footage has been very limited. I’ve never sought out footage of the towers falling and the aftermath, none of it. Yes, there’s probably loads of it on YouTube or can be found through a Google search, but I never sought it out. I’ve only seen it in other films and television programs, or, again, a class I was taking. But, usually those moments were brief, so it’s not like I got something in depth. Even in this film, with the use of archival footage, and possibly digital reconstruction of the twin towers being destroyed (whatever it was the creative teams used), it’s still very limited, which is also a good thing. It just puts you more in the film and makes it even more real, which for some (me), could end up being a positive.

It’s not very often that a film can get away without providing too much about characters, at least in the traditional way, or needing to work that hard to get you into a film with heavy drama. With this film, it’s not because this is based on a tragic true event, but because it’s lead creatives understood how to portray these particular heroes and many others we didn’t meet. Once you were in this film, you never left. In some ways, talking about this film, but keeping it so focused on strong themes, as opposed it other specific elements, seems unfair. However, I’ve come to the conclusion, that none of that matters. If those elements hadn’t already been there, if you didn’t believe them from the get go, none of the heavy emotional pull this film exhibited, would’ve come across at all. Nothing in this film would’ve mattered. Not only a wasted opportunity, but potentially an exploitative film.

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