Manhattan Transcript: Why Oliver Stone Left Me Cold

Well, I am back in town. Getting here (from Wales) was a considerably less sentimental journey than Oliver Stone’s journeyman tribute to the city and its indomitable spirit—and a far more telling reminder of the changes resulting not just from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center but the subsequent efforts in the so-called war on terror. At our airports, unlike a court of law, we all are presumed guilty unless proven innocent. After a sleepless night in Manchester, England, I was being questioned regarding my passport, asked to provide evidence of my stay in the United Kingdom—the country where I now live and from which was about to leave.

Although issued in London and stating my residence as being Wales, my German passport marks me as a visitor, a cosmopolitan spirit, or some such suspicious subject. Airport (in)security has made international traveling considerably more challenging of late, given the current security alerts and precautionary measures at UK and US airports. Far more than a series of inconveniences, air travel has become an endurance test for a free world locked in a system of terror and liberties impounding counter-terrors.

It seemed right for me to go see World Trade Center on its opening night here in New York City, especially since some of the proceeds will go to charity. I lived in Manhattan on the day of the attack and the anguish of its aftermath. Reminders and memorials far more eloquent and than Stone’s film lined the city’s crowded if quiet streets—candles on the doorsteps, “missing persons” photographs on the walls, and distress signals in the faces of those lingering among strangers whose presence offers some reassurance that the world had not yet come to an end. Today, the World Trade Center site (pictured above, in a photograph I took last Tuesday), is a gash in the cityscape bespeaking the pathology of terror.

Telling the events of that day from the perspective of first responders and their families, Stone’s World Trade Center struck me not merely as sentimental but spurious. Denying the politics of terror and offering instead something akin to Backdraft with a “based on a true story” tag, the film plays a game of “Good cop, bad Capra” with those who are most anxious to attack it. It refuses to be sensationalistic, but falls far short of making much sense of matters so staggering to most of us. It has nothing to share beyond the uplifting message that the human body can endure great pain if sustained by a will to live.

We all are living and fighting for the basics, for the love of someone or the passion for something—including those in our midst who love to hate us and are willing to be consumed by and give their lives for that love. It is the realization of the potential destructiveness of fierce attachments that makes terrorism such a frightening presence in our lives. It is this disconcerting realization that World Trade Center leaves out of the picture, thereby falsifying an historical event that gave rise to the passion-stirring and hate-begetting war on terror.

Unlike the riveting United 93, Stone personalizes the event, embedding the extraordinary in ordinary stories of everyday middle-class and endorsed-as-traditional family living. With a narrative structure fit for a Lifetime television movie of the week and performances so perfunctory as to collapse under the burden of sentiment they are supposed to carry, World Trade Center is an abject failure in Hollywood storytelling.

Turning a landmark event into a Hallmark card, it even manages to reduce the eponymous structure and the smoke rising from its rubble look to a poorly executed CGI effect. Given the footage we have all seen and shed tears over, this faking was most distressing to me. Then again, even the homeless and the streetwalkers—stock figures meant to suggest urban grittiness in films set in the metropolis—came across like so many Hollywood extras dressed up for the occasion.

It was distressing that I could not be made to feel anything but dissatisfaction, having suffered so greatly on that day and being generally so receptive. Other around me even burst into uneasy laughter at the sight of Jesus holding a water bottle, an image of astonishing tackiness. It is telling that the most poignant moments in the film flickered before me in news footage of the world’s response to the attack, images of people who did just what I did when the towers came down: watch in horror. These snippets also carry the political message that Stone’s dramatizations obscure: that the world’s love for America, so evident on the day of the attack, has been squandered and that neither our homes nor the world beyond are any safer in the age of counter-terrorism.

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