Review: World Trade Center (2006)

Director: Oliver Stone


Five years after the horrors of 9/11, Oliver Stone made a film about it. “How dare he?!”, they said. One of the most provocative of mainstream American directors attempting to make a film about the US’ darkest hour when the effects were still being felt (mostly by Iraqis and Afghans) should have been a powder keg. It was inevitable that films would be made, but by the man who made JFK and Nixon? Hit the dirt!

No, wait! It’s alright. You can come back. Anyone expecting a probing and critical dissection of the events of that September day will be in for quite a shock. World Trade Center is a personal story; Stone retracts his claws in favour of a story of survival and hope. If this sounds a bit sappy to you, you’re mostly right, but it still packs a punch.

World Trade Center focuses on John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), two Port Authority officers on duty when the Twin Towers are struck by two hijacked aeroplanes. A group of officers volunteers to enter the towers on a search and rescue mission, but only get into the lobby when the tower collapses on top of them. The opening half-hour of World Trade Center sees Stone at his most upfront, as we witness the towers burning and people falling to their deaths. The grim realities of that day are captured so effectively that what follows can’t help but pale in comparison. Once the towers fall, McLoughlin and Jimeno are pinned under rubble, and with little else they can do, they talk in order to kill time and take their minds off the pain they are in. Meanwhile, their wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal) are forced to wait to hear about what has become of their men. The four leads are uniformly excellent; Cage and Peña evoke a lot of emotion despite being rendered immobile in the debris. Tales of children’s achievements and life plans are exchanged as they try to maintain consciousness; when they do sleep, they dream of happier times. It’s hard to be cynical about such potentially mawkish material when it is based directly on the men’s experiences in the wreckage (the real McLoughlin, Jimeno and their wives served as consultants on the film).

Stone is committed to retelling the story of these men not as a direct 9/11 story, but a personal journey and a testament to hope. Andrea Berloff’s script may be inspired by McLoughlin and Jimeno’s ordeal, but her reverence leads to some bizarre scenes (at one point, Jimeno hallucinates about Jesus offering him a bottle of water). Some would also argue that a storyline involving a volunteer rescuer, Sergeant Karnes (Michael Shannon), is too gung-ho and oozes bleeding-heart patriotism, which is just not Oliver Stone material.  It flirts with sentimentality, but that was always going to happen. World Trade Center is a finely constructed film, committed to courage over carnage. Anyone expecting a probing dissection of the events of the day in the vein of vintage Oliver Stone, however, will be sorely disappointed.


Review: Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Director: Werner Herzog


Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a strange beast. It takes its name from Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), and both feature a police lieutenant (Harvey Keitel in the original, Nicolas Cage now) whose behaviour on-and-off-duty is morally and legally questionable. However, that is where the comparisons have to end; Keitel and Cage aren’t even playing the same character. This is not a sequel, nor a remake (or a ‘reimagining’ as the studios like to say. Idiots.). The only thing the two films have in common is the name; BL:POCNO director Werner Herzog claims never to have seen Ferrara’s film, and Ferrara denounced Herzog’s film before it even began shooting. This can’t end well, surely?

The plot centres on Cage’s Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, working in a post-Katrina New Orleans. He’s good at his job, despite suffering from severe back pain and addictions to cocaine and gambling. His beat is a city ravaged by Mother Nature and crime (Peter Zeitlinger’s cinematography and Toby Corbett’s design and sets create a city that is struggling to rebuild, bereft of the traditional picturesque nature of the South). Against this colourful gallery of ailments, McDonagh is investigating the murder of five Senegalese immigrants whilst trying to hold his life and his relationship with his drug-dealer girlfriend (Eva Mendes) together.

BL:POCNO sounds like insanity. Strike that; it is insanity! It shouldn’t work. This is the kind of schlocky material that leads to the likes of Showgirls and 8MM. Yet, it does work. Somehow, through all the chaos, the drugs and the violence, a surprisingly entertaining romp emerges. Of course, it helps to have two experts in capturing insanity onscreen. Firstly, Cage is mesmerising; he goes from endearing hero to cackling hophead in the blink of an eye/sniff of a line. No-one does this kind of controlled mania like Cage, and it’s his best performance since Lord of War (not difficult when your CV since then includes Knowing and [shudder] The Wicker Man.) Herzog, meanwhile, brings his uncanny knack for the brilliantly absurd to the fore. As far as this critic knows, this is the only film to shoot a scene from the point of view of an iguana that is actually the figment of a character’s drug-addled imagination (That sentence will make a lot more sense once you see the film). Any man who could simultaneously get a ship hauled over a mountain and control Klaus Kinski could extricate some sense from this mess, and Herzog does. He keeps just enough of the barmy brilliance of William M. Finkelstein’s script intact to allow the plot to come through, and then craziness ensues. When you go to the box office and are about to enter the theatre, just take a deep breath and then let yourself go. It’s often easier to go with the flow than resist the mania.