Politics and art do their dance

'Trade Center,' '93' elicit strong reactions from critics

Earlier this year, the back-to-back releases of “World Trade Center” and “United 93” drew lots of ink from pundits pondering whether America was ready to see filmic portrayals of the 9/11 terror attacks. It became quickly apparent that the answer was a conditional “yes,” as the films drew solid auds and mostly positive to rhapsodic reviews.

But what was then overlooked — and what, in a tight Oscar race, could quickly become overanalyzed — were the strong political reactions to two films that at first blush were largely congratulated for their lack of political content.

Politics, right or left, rarely reared its head in any of the notices or commentaries when “United 93” was released in late April. Then, when “World Trade Center” appeared in August, the political debate began rumbling to life and “United 93” was effectively reviewed all over again.

The Democratic victories of Nov. 7 may have taken some of the stored-up bile out of the more liberal members of the critical community, but there’s a question hanging over the kudos prospects of both films: Will award voters reward either or both of the films for tackling a tough subject and one that remains a hot button for left and right? Or will they be punished for daring to wade into topical waters that can prove treacherous during the season of a thousand back-slaps?

Among movie critics, who generally take pains to disguise their personal political stripes, “United 93” quickly became the tough, unflinching document while “World Trade Center” waved the inspiring, if not downright red-white-and-blue, banner.

According to the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr, ” ‘World Trade Center’ proudly samples patriotism among its other core emotions; to do otherwise would be to play the day false. … The result is that Stone has made a less rigorous, more comforting film than Paul Greengrass’ monumental ‘United 93.’ ” Burr went on to opine that “United 93” avoided the “urge to mythify” and instead replayed “the tragedy with blunt fidelity.”

The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Rainer also noted a strong patriotic bent in his review of “World Trade Center.” “It strenuously avoids controversy,” he wrote. “Even ‘War of the Worlds’ was more worldly. What little political content there is can most accurately be described as flag-waving.”

For Rainer, “United 93” went beyond politics: “The filmmakers are undoubtedly sincere in their desire to make a movie that dignifies the memories of the fallen and helps us understand the horrors of 9/11. But I think the gut appeal of this film is more primal than that. ‘United 93’ taps into the helplessness we felt on that day.”

In the New Yorker, David Denby saw a similar aesthetic-politico division separating the two films. According to Denby, if Greengrass’ film was art (“a tremendous experience of fear, bewilderment and resolution”) then Stone’s could be read as artful agitprop. As Denby saw it, ” ‘World Trade Center’ is about courage and endurance as a function of family strength; it’s about suburban and small-town America trying to save the big city. Those are conservative themes, much praised for their appearance in this movie by the kind of right-wingers who have long hated Oliver Stone.”

The Onion’s Keith Phipps noted a similar divide, hailing Greengrass for having “pieced together an unforgettable, honorably intentioned film” and noting that “the politics of Stone’s 9/11 movie lean right.” But not so far right that it fails to inspire mainstream America. As Phipps observed, “The film sits up straight and just wants to be loved by all. There are more controversial Hallmark cards.”

Writing for the leftist Village Voice, critic J. Hoberman saw clear politics in the way “World Trade Center” presented its hero, the Marine who led the charge to find firefighters and civilians in the WTC rubble. “Stone’s end title notes that (the Marine) subsequently served two tours in Iraq,” Hoberman wrote, and then went on to wonder in print, “Who will extricate our brave soldiers from the rubble of that disaster?”

According to Hoberman, if there’s any politics in “United 93,” it’s how the Greengrass movie differs from the president’s take on that fateful flight. “Bush’s scenario was that the passengers realized what was happening and deliberately tried to crash it,” says the critic. “In the movie, what’s clear is that they’re taking control to land it. They’re not suicidal.”

If some saw hints of a right or left slant in either movie, Newsweek’s David Ansen did not, and lauded both “World Trade Center” and “United 93” for being “uncontaminated by politics.”

Political pundits also weighed in. Fox Network’s rare liberal Alan Colmes liked both films.

“I know that a lot of people try to impart, with Oliver Stone, this idea that he’s some kind of a leftist, and therefore that informs all of his movies, but I honestly didn’t see it that way,” says Colmes. “I thought Stone’s movie was a very personal story about triumph after a tragedy, and I didn’t see any political bias in that film. Same with ‘United 93’; it seemed almost documentarylike, the way it re-enacted that day.”

On the other side of the political divide, the two films especially tweaked conservative columnist Cal Thomas, who could not help but let go with a stripes-and-stars speech: “(‘World Trade Center’) is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see. … Movies like ‘World Trade Center’ and ‘United 93,’ which preceded it, don’t come along very often. More should.”

What conservatives adore, liberals can abhor. Author of “The Greatest Story Ever Sold,” Frank Rich opines, ” ‘United 93,’ in my view, reduced most of those murdered on that flight to nameless ciphers, draining them of their human dimensions. ‘World Trade Center’ was a ‘feel-good’ movie about a horrible event — it focused on a story with a mercifully happy ending — and strangely ended up with a postscript linking 9/11 to the war in Iraq.”

Whatever his movie conveyed politically, Stone, for his part, was having none of it. No sooner had “World Trade Center” been released in America than the director held a press conference at the Venice Film Festival to announce: “We have destroyed the world in the name of security. This war on Iraq is a disaster. I’m disgraced. I’m ashamed for my country. I’m also ashamed that America has attacked itself with its constitutional breakdowns. I’m deeply ashamed.”

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