Nothing about 9/11 is simple
Five years on, the world continues to shake in the aftermath
of 11 September. But Oliver Stone's World Trade Center reminds us that this one day was also about ordinary people trying to survive, says Colum McCann
There was a remarkable moment at the end of the international premiere of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Centre," which opens today (Aug 9th) in theatres all over the United States. A hush fell on the crowd at the Ziegfeld Theatre on 54th Street in New York. It was as if the oxygen had been taken from the air. The audience members – made up of cops, film stars, producers, firemen, writers, paramedics -- sat, rooted to their seats, as even the most obscure credits rolled. Second Unit First Assistant Director. Visual Effects Coordinator. Transportation Coordinator. Then the curtain came down. The cheers and applause rang out.
It was as if the story could only end this way, should only end this way, suspended in a cinematic aspic, with no other consequences than itself, a story of courage and survival, a testimony to endurance. But stories don't end, they collide with whatever is to come next, and the story of Oliver Stone's take on the events of September 11th is not so much what the film is about, as what sort of ripples it will eventually have on a country so desperately in need of a small parcel of truth.
George Bush and his cronies will like this film, and yet so will most other people, from any political spectrum, who still manage to have a beating heart. While the conservative right have already begun to use the film to thump their chests, many others will emerge, brushing the saccharine off their sleeves, to ask: What have we become? What was done in the name of such sadness?
In a sense "World Trade Centre" will become a sort of moral weather report.
It's a simple story, simply told. Two Port Authority policemen get trapped in an elevator shaft beneath the fallen towers. They are good, solid, flawed, working-class men. They fight to stay alive in the hellbox of rubble. Fire balls whizz around them. Whole chunks of stone fall into their mouths. Trapped, dying, they talk to one another, in spurts of simple, honest dialogue: about kitchen cabinets, Starsky and Hutch tunes, the names of their children.
As the hours fade, their dead colleagues rot nearby. Pistol shots go off in the dark. Outside the rubble, their families suffer their own peculiar terrors. A U.S Marine, inspired by his faith, leads the rescue effort. The men emerge and a voiceover tells us that "9/11 showed us what human beings are capable of … it is important for us to talk about that good."
Simple, perhaps, and yet, in the end, nothing is simple, not even simplification.
The sudden anguish of a moment of great horror is like coming upon a precious thing which has fallen and shattered into fragments. You might collect the pieces of the moment, discover how to fit them together and then carefully glue them towards the original. Eventually the moment is formed again, but it is never the same as it was before. It is both flawed and more telling at the same time. It becomes new. It holds the after-image of what it once was, but it is never used in the same way again.
Stone's film, which will undoubtedly become a worldwide blockbuster, is accurate and gut-wrenching. It's about the deep need for catharsis rather than victory. Stone is neither cowed nor politically declamatory. He touches the pulse of the wound. While seeking to engage our better selves – our sense of goodness and our deep need for heroes – the film, necessarily, ignores its own aftermath.
In the end, what it does, and does best, is that it asks us to remember.
The skies were beautifully blue. Ash settled on the windowpane. A tail of smoke curled over the city. Handmade signs hung on the lampposts. Looking for Derek Sword. On the supermarket shelves all the eyewash was gone. A broken fire hydrant was crowned with a wreath. There were no candles left in the churches: they had all been lit. The blood bank was jammed with volunteers. The flowers were stacked outside the firehouse. There was not a single thing in New York City that was devoid of meaning on the day after the attacks: even the least of items was connected. A child had drawn a painting of the two towers, reaching out to hold hands with one another. It was tacked among the names of the missing. What could be said? It was everyone's story.
In my own home, we had waited a long time and my wife's father was finally back. He had been on the 57th floor of the towers. He was inside Tower One when Tower Two collapsed. He said that, in the dark, it was difficult to know whether he was alive or not. His feet sloshed in the water from the sprinklers. Firemen guided the way. When he emerged, into the half-light, all was utterly changed. He walked up through the city, hair covered in ash. When he made it to the corridor of our apartment building my daughter, four years old, ran up and jumped into her beloved grandfather's arms. Then she backed away and hid.
"Poppy's burning," she said.
"No, no," my wife told her. "It's just the smoke on his clothes."
"No, he's burning," she said, "from the inside out."
We were all somehow burning from the inside out. My father-in-law took off his shoes and left them at the door. They were covered in the dust of the World Trade Centre. He could not put them on again. He could not bear it. He could not walk in those shoes. For months afterward he would wake and remember the faces of those policemen and firemen who had gone up the Trade Centre stairs as he was coming down. It ripped him up to think of them. "They were so very young," he said.
It may sound trite, but, five years ago in New York, everyone needed a hero. And they were there. They really were. Paramedics. Nurses. Counsellors. Cops. Restaurant owners. Even a mayor who had largely been disgraced. The mood in the city – despite hysterical stories in the world media – was just sad. Only that. Sad. Raw. Bereft. No grand calls for justice, which would eventually become just another form of revenge. It had been an attack on the world – the dead were from 87 countries. They were praying at the City Hall in Belfast. There were services held in Hamburg. In Beirut, people wept openly. Others celebrated. It was, indeed, everyone's story.
My father-in-law's shoes stayed at the door for many days. They seemed, in a curious way, like a prospect of hope. In them, he had walked out.
In the midst of the Second World War, Simone Weil wrote that respect for our neighbours, being made of creative attention, is analogous to genius. We have to recognise that a sufferer exists. It is indispensable to look at him or her in a certain way.
Stone manages in "World Trade Centre" to display an empathy that is not naïve, no matter how cinematically compressed it is. There is no doubt that in some quarters there will be crushing condemnation, as if it somehow kowtows to the intellectual inanities of the Bush government. That it lacks rage. That it expresses the general crisis of a world bully. That it plays to the lowest common denominator and legislates the way it is to be interpreted. That it affirms sentimentality. That it doesn't care about others.
But Stone's film is in its small moments and he wants to leave it that way. They were ordinary folk. They woke up in the twenty-first century with a pile of rubble on their shoulders. They didn't want it. They tried to crawl out. Some of them did. Some others did, but they still left their shoes behind.
"World Trade Centre" attempts a sort of literary compression. It withholds mention of its central problem – only a shadow of the planes crosses the towers – and it attempts to produce an emotion not by claiming it, but rendering the experience of living through it. "This is a fresh wound, and it had to be cautherised in a certain way," Stone says. "This is a very specific story. The details are the details are the details."
All through Stone's pre-launch interviews he has hammered home the point: This is not a political film. And, curiously, Stone is correct – it is not an outright political film, despite its title, which could seen as disingenuous and manipulative. Why make a supposedly non-political film and call it "World Trade Centre"? Stone attempts to say that it is in the small, anonymous corners of human experience that the universal can be told and felt. The World Trade Centre, after all, was not just an event, but a place. People worked there. They washed dishes. They wrote affidavits. They shredded paper. They watched it fall.
The crisis of making a piece of art about the September tragedy is what it will not say. Some stories are too big. There is a chilling connective tissue in it. And there are problems in the technology of remembering. Stone and the rest of us should go to Baghdad and make a film about the fruit market on the day the "allied" missiles split the human pavements open. We should go to Qana and pluck that child out of the rubble. We should go to Mahmudiya and talk about the young Iraqui who was burnt and raped by four U.S soldiers. We should go to Haifa and cower as the bombs thud into the walls.
Our crisis is a crisis of empathy. The heart has to hope to keep the mind awake. Even memory doesn't fill all the silences and the mistakes of the old will always become the terrors of the young.
In the end most artists, including Stone, know that our stories end up too small anyway. "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better," said the playwright Samuel Beckett. The fact that most stories fail is not Beckett's point. That they try is the true bravery.
Oliver Stone might have made a film that could very well help people to understand the ordinary person blindsided in this global conflict. At the end of the movie, the jacked-up Marine who helped initiate the rescue, blithely says: "We're gonna need some good men to revenge this." A small hiss sounded out in a part of the theatre. The sobbing stopped for a second. People knew. This moment had consequences far beyond 54th Street.
In truth, I must say that I wanted, at first, to hate the film. I wanted to sit in that theatre and say that Stone only reinforced the political orthodoxy. Given the pre-screening hype, and its embrace by conservatives who have hailed it as pro-family, pro-American, pro-male, pro-freedom, I wanted to say that the western world will love "World Trade Centre" only because it is about victory in a time of moral defeat.
A film can be influenced by its audience. It is hard to divorce the fact that some of those who had suffered were watching an interpretation of their own lives unfold, but at most movies, even premieres, the aisles would have already been filled when the credits rolled. People would be rumbling for their umbrellas, their handbags, their programs. Instead, everyone sat and waited. In silence. And then the applause rang out.
When the curtain went down, I watched John McLoughlin – one of the two Port Authority policemen upon which the film is made – rise up from his seat in the Zeigfeld. He shook hands and politely smiled. He kissed his wife. He walked out.