USA Today, August 9, 2006
The lost humanity of September 11
By Bruce Kluger
In recent weeks, Oliver Stone's September 11 epic, World
Trade Center, has become its own ground zero of
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 starpulse.com, "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
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
Both revered and reviled, director Oliver Stone rarely fails
to incite moviegoers:
Platoon (1986): Seen through the eyes of a newly arrived G.I.
(Charlie Sheen), Stone's potent Vietnam memoir candidly
condemns America's most unpopular war. A solid hit, it wins four
Oscars, including best director.
his ill-fated bond with a sleazy mogul (Michael Douglas) is eerily timely: Two months
before it opens, the Dow plummets 508 points.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989): Based on the book by wheelchair-bound
Vietnam vet Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise), Stone offers a wrenching portrait of
the casualties of war—this time, stateside.
The Doors (1991): Drenched in sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, Stone's trippy tribute to
the flash-and-crash career of rock god Jim Morrison is groovy to watch, but it fails
to make a larger statement about the Sixties counter-culture.
JFK (1991): Stone's complex conspiracy theory behind the Kennedy assassination
collides with historians and critics, who brand the film outrageous and its director
misguided. Despite attempts to defend his research, Stone's credibility nosedives.
Heaven & Earth (1993): Stone's third trip to Vietnam explores the peaceful tenets
of Buddhism that survived the ravages of war. Arguably his most beautiful and
spiritual film, it is overlooked by critics.
Natural Born Killers (1994): Satirizing America's addiction to violence and tabloid
TV, Stone's road picture about a pistol-packing couple (Woody Harrelson and
Juliette Lewis) only fuels the phenomenon, with gratuitous gore and sensationalized
Nixon (1995): Twenty-three years after Watergate, Stone reopens old wounds with
a fever-dream biopic of the disgraced 37th president. Chastened by JFK, he backs
up his research with a meticulously footnoted screenplay.
Any Given Sunday (1999): Aside from locker-room flashes of male nudity, Stone's
peek into the hard-hitting politics of professional football breaks no new ground. Al
Pacino and Cameron Diaz chew the scenery with abandon.
World Trade Center (2006): After a decade of lukewarm films, Stone returns to
top form with a 9/11 tribute. "This is not a political film," he says. And it isn't.
(Illustration by Adrienne Lewis, USA TODAY; photo of Oliver Stone by AP)