United 93 was an important movie. America was ready for the movie — both because enough time had passed since the September 11 attacks that a major motion picture wouldn’t be crass, and because enough time had passed since 9/11 that many of us could afford to be reminded. Reminded of our fellow Americans who were murdered that day. Reminded what brave, resourceful people they were. Reminded of something even more obvious but easy to forget: that America was attacked. Reminded that we are at war.
But as tasteful and well done as United 93 was, there was something about the movie that bothered me. The filmmakers showed me a bit too much of the terrorists. Calling home. Feeling sick. Praying. Forgive me my insensitivity, but I didn’t care to see them. I didn’t care if one or another of them was nervous in the minutes before the attack. It’s not terribly Christian of me, but I don’t really care about them — most especially in a movie that’s supposed to be about the good guys. I only wanted to see our 9/11 heroes.
And in this regard, Oliver Stone delivers what United 93 didn’t. His new movie, World Trade Center , which I saw in preview last week, is about us. It’s exclusively about the good guys. It’s about us when we’re heroic (those of us who are). It’s about us when we’re scared. It’s about us when we wake up in the middle of the night to go to work, listening to 1010 WINS (if you’re from New York City, there’s something extra-personal about this movie, and those attacks). It’s about us when we’re freaked-out kids who say mean things to our freaked-out mothers. It’s about a Marine who will drop everything to return to service. It’s about a team of rescue workers who will leave no man to die. It’s about our deep, abiding faith in God. It’s about our love of family, and the work we’ll do for them, and the joy they bring us. It’s about the irreplaceable, incomparable bond between a man and wife. It’s about the united outrage we feel when Americans are murdered. It’s about why we fight.
It’s just a movie, of course, but movies matter. How culture responds to war matters. Oliver Stone, in recreating what happened that day in the lives of two resilient men, has done more than any politician’s speech could ever do as we approach the fifth anniversary of the attacks. (Although partner it with Rick Santorum’s Thursday speech at the National Press Club and you’ve got a pretty solid primer on what happened and what we face.)
And yes, really: that Oliver Stone. JFK Oliver Stone. I’ve been talking to people about it for a week now and I still get the double-take reaction. When The Corner posted a link to a Cal Thomas column praising the Stone movie, more than a few dozen people thought Cal had missed his April Fools’ Day deadline.
As it happens, the most refreshing thing about Stone’s new film is that it is anything but political. You want your politicians political, not your movie producers. But it’s impossible not to take a political message from the movie, all the same — whatever the chatterers may or may not say about it in the coming weeks.
World Trade Center focuses on the lives and near deaths of two Port Authority police officers. We see 9/11 through their eyes. In those seemingly endless days and nights where “missing” posters lined the streets of my city, with a desperate hopefulness in the smoky air, only 20 people were pulled from the Ground Zero rubble. Sgt. John McLoughlin and Officer William J. Jimeno, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, were the 18th and 19th rescued, having kept each other alive while “living in hell.”
Both McLoughlin and Jimeno, both of whom I had the honor to meet earlier this year — spent time on the set and off with Stone and the actors portraying them. They wanted, above all, that their story not be Hollywoodized, that it be kept honest — both for the sake of truth and out of respect for their Port Authority brothers who died that day.
As you follow the lives of these two men, who ran into Tower 2, who first watched anonymous World Trade Center workers jump to their deaths from their office windows and then saw members of their own team die, you relive those days. You come to understand the things that, unless you were one of the lifesavers who crawled into the rubble of “pick-up sticks,” you mercifully never had to see in person. And you can’t help but be grateful that, as Nicolas Cage says toward the end of the movie, “9/11 showed us what humans are capable of, the evil, yeah sure, but it also brought out a goodness we forgot could exist. People taking care of each other, for no other reason than it was the right thing to do. It’s important for us to talk about that good, to remember, because I saw a lot of it that day.”
In World Trade Center we see how Americans react to evil. It’s an evil we should not forget — and it’s an evil we should call by name. Thank God there are people willing to run into burning towers and Marines willing to report for duty. Thank God there is goodness to prevail in the world.
Oliver Stone, who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, has put together a beautiful tribute to John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno, to every single person who ran toward danger to save others, and to every American who protects and defends Americans today. So move over, Superman. These guys aren’t cartoon superheroes, they’re even better — they’re heroes who are real. McLoughlin and Jimeno, as portrayed and in person, are regular guys, with regular families — good, all-American people who were called to do something selfless and answered that call. It’s important for us to talk about them and the good they do — and to be grateful for everyone who sprints toward danger to save one of the rest of us.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.