Our defining moment

Posted: Aug 10, 2006 12:01 AM
Our defining moment

If "World Trade Center" were not a movie based on a real-life event, critics would tear it apart for mixing genres, comedy and tragedy, allegory and realism, documentary drama with theatre of the absurd. The script juxtaposes mind-numbing conversations between two Beckett-like characters trapped underground in darkness, barely visible, with soap-opera episodes above ground rendered in bright colors where the families of the two men eat, sleep, argue, cry and wait for the news they pray is good but fear is not.

Aristotle would not approve.

The movie is about real life, an event not quite five years old. It's a contemporary docudrama based on what happened to two Port Authority cops (played by Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena) trapped under debris at Ground Zero, who can't move in the stone and steel trappings that lock their bodies under the earth in an inferno. Everyone in the theater will recall where he was on September 11, when two airliners piloted by Islamist suicide bombers smashed into the tallest buildings in Manhattan in the name of Allah. That sunlit day, so ordinary but for the clarity of the light, was suffused in a dark drama of evil, where the fire and brimstone arbitrarily fell on innocents as well as villains hell-bent for divine punishment.

"World Trade Center" mixes personal memories with political emotions requiring the audience to bring as much to the movie as the movie delivers to the audience. It's impossible to write about it with an eye for discerning aesthetic triumphs and failures of film narrative. It's too close, too raw, too unrelenting in its inevitability to think of it as a work of art. Instead of suspending disbelief, we must patch together our beliefs; instead of enjoying an emotional catharsis that lets us go about our business, we find a solitary Marine (played by Michael Shannon) speaking out for us and our overwhelming desire for revenge against all the evil men who wrought such pain and devastation.

Oliver Stone resists the interpretation of the lone Marine, but the movie sends it in spite of the director's well-known politics. It's impossible not to watch two hours of unrelenting suffering without confirming the voice of the Marine who speaks as if a Greek chorus: "We're going to need some good men out there to avenge this." Oliver Stone was encouraged to cut this line, but couldn't because it rendered the young Marine as real.

The Marine is a man of humility, who fuses his military training with a spiritual incentive to do God's work. He seeks no glory. When someone asks his name and he replies with the long title, "Marine Staff Sgt. David W. Larnes," the inquirer wants something shorter to remember with his heroism. "Staff sergeant," he says. He is a generic military hero, and the filmmaker concedes that he represents the point of view of many -- most -- Americans.

"World Trade Center" won't receive the adulation of "United 93." It lacks the suspense, the clarity and thematic cohesion of the story of the passengers who almost foiled the suicide bombers who crashed a fourth airliner into a Pennsylvania field on September 11. "World Trade Center" is more homespun, more grounded in the sloppy everyday struggle for survival of two men who can do nothing but talk and try to stay awake, and their families who can do nothing but go on living their lives. If the trivial banter of the men suggests an allegory of the human condition as they wait for Godot, the families dramatize the human comedy as lived in ordinary pity and fear.

The two men are courageous with a little "c" for not giving up hope, but they're denied acts of heroism. They volunteered to help victims in the rubble, but become victims before they can risk anything for anybody else.

There were moments in "World Trade Center" when I felt overwhelmed by the impotence and frustration of the characters. But their ordinary humanity, like the humanity of those who rescue them, lifts their story and moves it away from the mournful fate others suffered that day. We're left to reflect upon what's important in life at the edge of death, of men who talk about love for their wives and children, the homely satisfactions of hobbies and hopes.

The advertisements for "World Trade Center" describe it as our "defining moment," one of heroism rather than terrorism. There is heroism in the work of the rescuers, but in the depiction of danger amid the debris we're reminded again of the awful cruelty of the terrorists. Our defining moment will be what we do about them.