Conservatives Look a Gift Film in the Mouth

Posted: Aug 14, 2006 1:02 AM

Like a lot of conservative film critics, I was more than a little apprehensive to hear that anti-American conspiracy theorist Oliver Stone would be making a movie about 9/11. Fortunately, whatever his past cinematic sins and however many he may commit in the future, there is no reason to fear World Trade Center. On the contrary, Stone gives us many reasons to stand up and applaud.

His latest (and, to date, most successful) effort tells the true story of John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two Port Authority police officers who went into the World Trade Center to save lives and ended up needing rescuing themselves. Jumping between the trapped officers, their frantic spouses, and their would-be rescuers, Stone turns the memory of the U.S.’s worst day into a requiem that tells of our honor and triumph as much as our pain and devastation.

The most nuclear of families gather to pray through their distress; a marine-turned-accountant leaves his home in Connecticut and heads for ground zero to offer whatever service he can; a faith-filled clergyman tells a parishioner that if he truly feels Jesus calling on him to save victims, he must find a way to answer; and servicemen, paramedics, and local officers risk their lives together rescuing the fallen. At no point are any Americans, be they soldiers, civilians, or politicians, portrayed as anything other than stalwart patriots determined to do good in the most devastating of circumstances.

In fact, so much pro-America, pro-faith sentiment pervades World Trade Center some mainstream critics like The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan panned it for making “an explicit connection between Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq that will make the Bush White House and the Republican National Committee eager to embrace it as their own.”

What then could right-leaning reviewers object to other than Stone’s grandiose directorial style and Cage’s continuing penchant for over-acting? Somehow, a lot.

Says Brian Carney of The Wall Street Journal, “…there are no villains in Mr. Stone's movie. Nicholas Cage's John McLoughlin and Michael Pena's Will Jimeno could have been trapped by an earthquake or an accident.” National Review Online’s critic Peter Suderman charges, “His movie all but ignores political and societal ramifications of that day...” And Human Events’ Janice Shaw Crouse complains, “Except for the shadow of a plane that foretells the terrorism, Stone's version of the story morphs into just another challenging event or natural disaster.”

While it is true that Stone’s acknowledgments of the Muslim perpetrators are subtle, as befits the personal focus of the story, they are unquestionably present. Cage’s character comments that though authorities planned for biological warfare and many other kinds of attacks, “Nobody planned for this.” The marine tells his coworkers, “"I don't know if you guys know it yet, but this country's at war,” and later calls them to say he’s reenlisting because, “It’s going to take good people to avenge this.” Police officers watching the carnage on television repeatedly curse “the bastards,” under their breath. And a postscript informs the audience that said marine will go on to further serve his country in two tours of duty in Iraq.

Such elements make it clear that while our enemies frame the narrative, this is not their story. It is America’s. It is not a moment to decry Al Qaeda’s actions, but to celebrate ours.

Still, given the continuing national debate over how best to defeat terrorism, arguments that Stone doesn’t do enough to highlight Islamo-fascism are at least understandable. But what to make of criticisms that indicate a bit of the same brand of paranoia Stone is famous for?

Writes Crouse, “I can’t help but wonder if the movie’s respectful treatment of people of faith is just another of the numerous recent attempts to prove that conservatives don’t have a monopoly on respect for religion -- paving the way for left-wing political victories in 2006 and 2008?”

This assessment seems unfair (and more than a little overly-suspicious) given that political affiliation is never mentioned in the movie. But it’s not nearly as unfair as conservative critic Debbie Schussel’s suggestion that the film “[Scores] one for extremist Islam in Hollywood,” or her subsequent attack in which she accuses the real-life Jimeno, McLoughlin, and their wives of selling out the other 9/11 victims for “a quick buck and fifteen minutes on ‘Entertainment Tonight’.” She then equates their willingness to work with known liberals like Stone and actress Maggie Gyllenhaal with “slapping the faces of those who died, while they were lucky enough to live and become starstruck.”

Considering that these are the same two men who nearly lost their lives entering the burning towers to rescue their fellow citizens, don’t we at the very least owe them the benefit of the doubt as to their motives? What purpose can be served by excoriating two genuine heroes for participating in a movie that does nothing but present a proud, hopeful portrait of America? It pains me to say it, but in this case, who is it putting politics above patriotism?

What influence can the Right hope to have on popular culture if we respond to even the most uplifting projects with cynicism, derision, and petty fault-finding? We can’t complain about mainstream entertainment lacking reverence for our faith and values if we offer only knee-jerk condemnations to a respectful, well-crafted film that gives us both.