Claustrophobia Extremis: World Trade Center, The Descent
By Fernando F. Croce

Interesting how more than one critic has evoked the Holocaust (or, more specifically, its Schindler's List reflection) when discussing 9/11 and World Trade Center -- the perils of crafting feel-good entertainment out of tragedies beyond the reach of mainstream cinematic representation. Oliver Stone understands the path, and treads cautiously: Used to confrontationally picking at America's historical wounds, the director instead applies inspirational gauze to the still-painful gash. New York City is a breathing entity here, with Stone's opening montage surveying its waking rhythms -- pale morning light, garbage trucks, taxis, subways. Nicholas Cage, playing real-life Port Authority cop John McLoughlin, rises at 3:29 a.m., Stone lays the ominous titlecard over his drive to work, "Only in America" emanating out of the radio: "September 11, 2001." The Twin Towers are viewed first discreetly in the distance, then full-on from a barge; the locker room razzing between younger officers Will Jimeno (Michael Pe˝a) and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) fills the space before the horrors. Then, suddenly, a whoosh, a shadow, a tilted ground-level shot of the buildings, the impact heard (and felt) from within one of the offices. Sgt. McLoughlin gets his men and heads downtown, but there's no plan once they get to the site of the attacks, "not for something this size."

Solemn and respectful like the anniversary memorial it was commissioned to be, World Trade Center benefits from the director's personal experience in the battlefield -- as the first tower smolders and papers rain down, people covered in blood and dust slowly make their way out of the lobby, a death-march that could be the evacuation of Saigon, or maybe the aftermath of an American raid in Iraq. In any case, Stone bends backwards to keep the drama ("apolitical," as if such a thing actually existed) universal, situated squarely in the here-and-now of survival rather than the distanced, inquiring prism of history. Flag-waving is left for the chatter of television news, locked in a loop; for the protagonists, it's the more basic matter of escaping with their lives from beneath the mountain of rubble of the collapsed buildings. John and Will are trapped, the camera remains close to the characters, whose faces, in close-up and half-obscured by darkness, are simultaneously visceral and abstract: Their grime-caked immobility suggests horrified physical paralysis, but also the spiritual entombment of their bravery, for both men are already monuments. They swap family stories and talk about Starsky & Hutch to keep each other from slipping into deathly slumber; the wives, meanwhile, sort through their own emotional hell, Mrs. McLoughlin (Maria Bello) revealing twitches of anxiety under the frozen hausfrau fašade while Mrs. Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) lets the anguish flow freely.

George W. grabs the first heroic words on TV, seconded by the "Bastards!" of a Wisconsin officer -- where's Oliver Stone during this? Craning up, up, up from Ground Zero's hellish expanses, past the clouds and into the stratosphere for a distraught, cosmic POV (a satellite's, or something more elevated). Has this inveterate agitator deliberately straitjacketed his dervish-furies out of respect for the material, or has he read the critics who missed the boat on Alexander? One way or another, World Trade Center is his most stylistically conservative work: His editing, usually used to tear through images and ideas, is healing and even graceful here, braiding Cage's character with his wife telepathically via a shared flashback about an unexpected pregnancy. A glowing Jesus makes an appearance, but Stone saves his trademark fervor for the portrayal of Staff Sergeant (Michael Shannon), an ex-Marine ramrod who hears God's call and marches from Connecticut to New York City to help find the tragedy's survivors. Is this G.I. Joe, fervently introduced amid mega-sized Bibles and crosses, a selfless hero, a humanoid relative of the grunts of Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, or both? Stone can only leave hints of ambivalence, he is busy following McLoughlin's orders ("Don't think. Move") all the way to the last fade to white. Stone's emotionalism is far preferable to Paul Greengrass' pernicious neutrality in United 93, but he's a questioning artist neutering himself for the sake of uplift. The officers are rescued, Staff Sergeant professes revenge; Stone should follow him for a more probing film.

*

Holy claustrophobia, Batman. From being pinned under rubble in World Trade Center to squeezing through mountainous crevices in The Descent isn't much of a relief, though Neil Marshall's low-budget horror flick offers at least one improvement: women, relegated to Stone's margins for hand-wringing circa The Best Days of Our Lives, are brought to the center and given extreme-sports gear, if only to be let loose amid bloodthirsty goblins. Indeed, it's as a treasure trove of sexual/psychological subtext that Marshall's estrogen-propelled thriller is being shrewdly sold, as a natty genre exercise with buckets of blood ready for Carol Clover analysis. A ramming rod is the opening phallic intrusion, used in an accident; stalagtites protrude out of the rocky ground, but the Appalachian cave into which the spelunking heroines venture is mainly characterized by yawning chasms and flowing red water. Screeching latex gargoyles await in the depths, plus personal unfinished business among these gals. More ingenious than creative, Marshall nevertheless sets things up adroitly, with cramped spaces and darkness and the sense of visceral subjectivity that's become the bread 'n' butter of modern horror since the success of Saw; any promising acumen soon burns out like a dying torch, leaving only a bunch of blank screamers, fastidiously amplified "boos," and the most confused intimations of lesbianism since High Tension.

*

It's out of geological formations and onto the open road for Little Miss Sunshine, yet if anything this Sundance-calibrated sitcom is this week's most claustrophobic horror. The squirming here comes from being crammed in a VW van with an entire family of supposedly delightful Johnny One-Notes, each tending to their eccentricities like twee indies so often do -- Greg Kinnear is the father, a self-improvement guru petrified at the prospect of being a loser, Toni Collette plays the clan's Marge Simpson, Alan Arkin is the dope-shooting grandfather, Paul Dano is the sullen teenager who has taken a vow of silence (didn't Harry and Tonto use this thirty years ago?), and Abigail Breslin is the 7-year-old reason our merry batch motors from New Mexico to California for a beauty pageant. Steve Carrel is around, too, bearded and stolid, which is a comic's equivalent of the way a glamorous actress wears disfiguring pancake to win an Oscar; he's the uncle, a professor virtually carrying a tag reading "Gay and Depressed" ("Proust scholar" is fancifully penciled in), a subplot already made irrelevant by Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello in Strangers with Candy earlier this year. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it's this year's Me and You and Everyone We Know, a patronizing sop to art-house audiences everywhere and further smearing of the name of independent cinema, enough to push you back into a cave full of demons.


Reviewed August 10, 2006.

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