Tuesday, June 12, 2018

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone, July 17, 2006

THE RUBBLE WAS STILL SMOKING ON MY TV SCREEN on the morning of September 11, 2001 when I wondered to myself how long it would take Hollywood to start turning out 9/11 stories. It wasn't the most noble or profound thought, I'll admit guiltily, but I had been shooting and writing about entertainment for over fifteen years and I thought that this was the sort of history that would be irresistible as a subject or just a setting.

As the response to the attacks resonated over the days and weeks that followed, I anticipated the stories that I assumed were already in production. I imagined several movies, told from the perspectives of everyone from a passenger on one of the flights or a worker in the towers to an Afghan farmer or a shop owner in Kabul. There would, I thought, be at least one miniseries, attempting to tell the whole, long story of how such a thing could happen, or just anatomize the events of that morning from every possible angle, like an exploded diagram of a timeline that turned minutes into hours.

Sure, there were films that came out in the next year or two that reflected the stunned, anxious mood of the time, like Spike Lee's 25th Hour, one of his better films, and one that pauses for a moment in its build-up to let the camera linger as it looks out a window over the former site of the towers in Lower Manhattan, which seemed like they'd be a crime scene and a construction site forever. But I was surprised when almost five years passed before I found myself in a hotel elevator on my way up to a press junket for the first real attempt at a 9/11 movie.

Michael Pena, July 17, 2006

World Trade Center was, along with United 93, one of two films about 9/11 that would come out that year. It's some measure of the stunning weight of the actual event that both films are straightforward depictions of the events of that day, told from either the land or from the air, without any political editorializing. Even more shocking was that the former film was made by Oliver Stone, a filmmaker happily given to politicized projects and hardly immune to paranoid or even conspiratorial takes on history.

Stone was in Toronto with actor Michael Pena, who played (along with Nicolas Cage) one of two police officers, Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, who were buried alive under the rubble of the towers but survived thanks to the efforts of other first responders and rescuers. Scott Strauss was also there - one of those rescue workers who helped find the handful of survivors in the wreckage (and was played in the film by Stephen Dorff.) The one thing that shocked everyone was how straight Stone had played the story, and when I interviewed him that morning he explained that he was simply trying to respect the viewpoints of the living people he was portraying:
"I did not make this movie pro-American, or anything like that. I made it international. I want to make a movie that works for the world. I want people to respond to people ... Certain people took that day and made it into anger. Other people like John (McLoughlin), in the end, in the voiceover, he made it into a different reaction. He called it goodness."
I took very simple, straightforward portraits of the men in that hotel suite (I'm guessing it was the old Four Seasons in Yorkville), using three different bits of daylight. Pena is usually cast as a sympathetic sort of everyman, a character defined by either naivete or inherent morality, while Stone is a famous contrarian, an intelligent man, but one with an infuriating sympathy for anyone - even despots and dictators - who shares his skepticism about America. I figured they could present themselves to my camera without much direction.

It was my portrait of Strauss that I worried about the most. He wasn't famous, like Stone, or used to facing cameras, like Pena. He was an ordinary man caught up in an extraordinary story, asked to join the film's press junket to provide quotes from someone who was there, on the day, where history made an ominous footfall. It was a sign of how much the film's producers wanted to show that they were treating that history - still very raw five years later - with due respect, and I tried to do the same with my portrait of Strauss.

Scott Strauss, July 17, 2006

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