, August 11, 2006

    Return to 9/11
    Oliver Stone's 'World Trade Center' recalls the solidarity of post-9/11
    Americasomething we've tragically forgotten.

    By Bruce Kluger

    In recent weeks, Oliver Stone's September 11 epic, World
    Trade Center, has become its own ground zero of
    national debate.

    Columnists who have attended advance screenings of the
    movie—which opens today nationwide—have been
    generally favorable, though not without injecting a healthy
    whiff of ideology. "It's impossible not to take a political
    message from the movie," writes National Review Online
    editor Kathryn Jean Lopez, who goes on to describe the
    movie as an argument on behalf of faith, heterosexual
    marriage and "united outrage."

    Armchair critics in the blogosphere, meanwhile, have
    been predictably sour, even though most have seen only
    the two-minute theatrical trailer. "Hey Oliver," taunts Agent
    Smith on, "how 'bout waiting at least 20
    years or so before trying to cash in on other people's

    And then there's MSNBC's Tucker Carlson, who went the bloggers one better.

    "Neither I nor anyone I know is going to see it," Carlson reported. "How could your
    memory, your experience of 9/11, be any more vivid than it already is?...Don't bring
    it to the silver screen. We don't need it there."

    Welcome to the opening of an Oliver Stone film.

    Breaking into the mainstream in 1986 with his Oscar-winning Vietnam memoir,
    Platoon, Stone quickly morphed in the public consciousness from brilliant cinematic
    upstart to alleged conspiracy-theorist nut, primarily because of his Kennedy
    assassination chronicle, JFK. Although the crackpot rep is largely unfair (while
    Stone took some liberties, he drew most of his material for JFK directly from the
    Warren Commission report and pre-existing conspiracy theories), the loony label
    stuck. That's Hollywood.

    Still, Stone forged ahead, taking on cultural institutions—the Sixties, Watergate,
    even the National Football League—with movies that had the moxie to plumb
    events of historical significance, often while the ink was still wet on the newsprint. If
    nothing else, that took guts.

    But now Stone has embarked on the greatest gamble of his career, resurrecting the
    wrenching pain and seismic shockwaves that erupted five years ago next month,
    when four fuel-fat jets plowed into the American psyche, forever changing this
    nation's perception of itself and its place in the global community.

    Public discourse about 9/11 has always been tortured. Like a family nervously
    discussing a favorite uncle's alcohol problem at the dinner table, many Americans
    find the conversation more harrowing than helpful—so why go there?

    And yet the truth is, America has always been obsessed with its own dramas.
    Whether on TV or on the big screen, on front pages or in quickie books, we are a
    nation bent on relentlessly reliving our darkest moments until either the pain has
    been exorcised or we just grow bored.

    The West Virginia mine disaster in January, for instance, commanded newspaper
    and TV coverage far beyond the usual cycle. Hurricane Katrina segments still run
    on cable news channels nearly a year later. Even the networks' prime-time dramas
    have joined the collective chest-thumping, incorporating terrorism storylines into
    their shows as blithely as they do Pepsi can product placements.

    But this time it's different. Like Paul Greengrass' United 93, which was released
    earlier this year, World Trade Center asks us to tear the scab off the rawest of
    national wounds. This is where Carlson and his ilk, despite their arrogance, merit
    an answer to their question: Why does America need to see this movie?

    The answer is painfully simple: Because much of the country has forgotten the real
    lesson of September 11.

    For a short while after that cataclysmic morning five hazy summers ago, parents
    hugged their kids a little tighter; neighbors dropped in on one another
    unexpectedly, then stayed for dinner; and Americans everywhere added a few extra
    words to their nightly prayers, asking God to provide comfort for people they didn't

    In the end, we drew strength from our shared grief, and in doing so, propped each
    other up. For the briefest of moments, our sense of family, as a nation, ran far
    deeper than the gaping holes that scarred the soil of New York, Virginia and

    And yet in less than a year, the very event that had inspired this awesome breath of
    unity had begun to tear us apart. In what now seems like an instant, September 11
    got ugly.

    It became the driving force behind an unpopular, divisive war, waged against a
    country that played no role in the terrorist attacks.

    It became a weapon in two national elections, recklessly waved about by politicians
    hell-bent on challenging the patriotism of their opponents.

    It became Valerie Plame and Halliburton, wiretaps and funding fights, POWs and

    Just like the sickening footage of the Twin Towers pancaking down onto
    themselves, our pride as an undivided nation collapsed in the blink of an eye,
    leaving us wandering in the dust ever since.

    If you think you were immune to this distressing transformation, try to remember the
    way you spoke about 9/11 to the guy in the next cubicle back in 2001, and the
    surprising ease with which you shared your feelings. Now imagine talking to him
    today—about the "war on terror," or the fighting in Fallujah, or the congressional
    debate over prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Would you be just as candid with your
    thoughts? Would he?

    The real tragedy is, this didn't have to be. Not since Pearl Harbor had the nation felt
    so blindingly compelled to pull together. But rather than hold fast to that common
    purpose—to invest in what Lincoln called "the bonds of fraternal feeling"—we
    squandered the moment, then sped off in the other direction.

    Stone's film faithfully—respectfully—returns us to those sacred moments in late
    2001, when what really mattered was the love we felt for one another, and for our
    country. As a stirring survival story, it reminds us that a handful of souls salvaged
    from the twisted carnage that had claimed thousands could still be a blessing. It is a
    tragically beautiful film.

    Three weeks ago I went downtown to see Ground Zero for the first time in a few
    years. At the far east end of the mammoth excavation hole is a concrete
    observation deck, where New Yorkers and tourists can contemplate what is now a
    somber construction site for the planned Freedom Tower and 9/11 memorial.

    A few dozen of us lined up along the chain-link fence, craning our necks upward to
    read a moment-to-moment chronology of the fiery chaos that had raged less than a
    hundred yards from where we stood. The summer sun was brutal, yet we all
    remained there, hands to foreheads, shielding our eyes against the glare as we
    read in silence.

    It is my hope that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center inspires moviegoers to do the
    same thing—to squint against the harsh light of day in an effort to recall, even for
    just two hours, the common humanity that we, the people, felt on the morning of
    September 12.

    (Reprinted from USA Today; click here to read online version and comments.)