Correction to This Article
An Aug. 8 Style article about Oliver Stone and his film "World Trade Center" incorrectly said that Port Authority Officer Dominick Pezzulo died as a result of suicide on Sept. 11, 2001. Pezzulo died after being crushed by debris in the North Tower. In an Aug. 8 Style article about filmmaker Oliver Stone, the marketing company Creative Response Concepts was incorrectly identified as Creative Response Systems.

America's Character

"It's a movie of the heart, from the heart, about people," the often-adversarial Oliver Stone says of his new film, "World Trade Center." "It's got no baggage, no ideology." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 8, 2006

NEW YORK It's 101 degrees outside, but Oliver Stone cuts a cool figure as he strides into a well-upholstered hotel room. He's in town for the premiere of "World Trade Center," his dramatization of the rescue of two Port Authority police officers who were part of the rescue effort on Sept. 11, 2001. The film, which opens tomorrow, has already generated a certain degree of controversy, especially in Stone's native Manhattan. But it has also earned high praise from unlikely quarters, including some of the country's most outspoken conservative commentators.

Once again, it seems, Oliver Stone has found himself -- or placed himself -- in the center of the fray. For a director who has so often held up a subversive mirror to America's most cherished ideas about itself and its history, Stone's choice to depict Sept. 11 as a moment of heroism at first seems as counterintuitive as Jackson Pollock suddenly deciding he's Norman Rockwell.

But people who are surprised that "World Trade Center" is an Oliver Stone film haven't been paying attention. Indeed, with the film's celebration of family, service, endurance and religious faith, Stone is doing what he does best, taking American history outside the confines of conventional wisdom and casting it as something more akin to poetry, or myth.

Stone has always been a master of revisionist histories, from America's involvement in Central America in "Salvador" and the Vietnam War in "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July," to the skepticism of "JFK" and the Shakespearean portrait of "Nixon." Having rarely hesitated to engage his country's shadow material, Stone once again offers an unexpected take, presenting a pivotal event shrouded in grief and rage and giving it back to viewers as a tale of moral and spiritual uplift.

Rather than the conspiracies or blowback-induced guilt that many might have expected from Stone, "World Trade Center" is an ode to what he perceives as the best parts of the American character. As he's done so many times before, Stone -- always with his finger firmly on the pulse of his own generation -- seems to have made a movie that transcends factual history, instead delivering the story many of us want and need to hear.

Fighting Back

Arriving in theaters nearly five years after the actual event, "World Trade Center" is a dramatic, often excruciating tick-tock of that dreadful day when thousands died. But instead of focusing on the carnage, Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff have chosen to tell the story of John McLoughlin (played by Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who went into the buildings just before they collapsed and were pinned under concrete and rubble for 12 hours. They were among the 20 people who were pulled alive from the debris. (The film also follows the story of the men's wives, played by Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, as they wait in anguish for news of their husbands.)

"Nine-eleven was used politically to enhance American isolationism, America-firstism, which I think is unfortunate," says Stone. "So it comes with heavy baggage. But let's go back to the day, celebrate the strength and the people who lit a candle in the darkness. The people who fought back."

Some viewers will be startled by a patriotic subtext in "World Trade Center," coming from a director who has often said that nationalism and patriotism are the two greatest roots of evil in the world. That subtext is embodied by the character of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a retired Marine staff sergeant who, after seeing the attacks on television, impulsively got a regulation buzz cut, donned his uniform and drove to New York to help in the rescue effort. It was Karnes who ultimately found McLoughlin and Jimeno. And it's Karnes -- square-jawed, often looking into the middle distance like a military hero of a bygone cinematic era -- who toward the end of the film says that "they'll need a lot of good men to avenge this." A title card during the closing credits states that the real-life Karnes reenlisted and served two tours in Iraq.

That will be a stirring moment or a chilling one, depending on each filmgoer's point of view. But Stone, a decorated war veteran, insists that "you have to give credence" to the Karnses of the world. "Many Americans, perhaps the majority, were really angry and wanted revenge," he says of the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. "In fact, I did, too. I'm not a pacifist. I'd like to be one. I'd love to be in the best of all worlds. But we're dealing with reality here. I felt very angry, but I think the enemy was 5,000, 6,000 al-Qaeda. And I would go again to fight them . I wouldn't hesitate. And I'd send my son to fight them. That was the war, in Afghanistan. We didn't complete that war. I would disagree with Mr. Karnes. [I'd say] he fought the wrong war. But I understand the mentality of 'Let's get somebody.' I have no fight with the right or the left. The church of the left or . . . what do you call the right?"

Whatever Stone calls the right, at the moment much of it is calling him some very surprising names. The syndicated columnist Cal Thomas has labeled "World Trade Center" "one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see." In the National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote that Stone's film has tapped into "the united outrage we feel when Americans are murdered. It's about why we fight." Paramount, which is distributing "World Trade Center," has hired Creative Response Systems to help with grass-roots marketing; the firm is best known for orchestrating the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks against John Kerry during the 2004 presidential campaign.

"Listen, anybody -- right, left, Martian, any gender, any race, anywhere -- who loves the movie is a person I love," Stone says. "Because I know he or she has a heart. Because it's a movie of the heart, from the heart, about people. It's got no baggage, no ideology. Neither of the guys talked about [politics]; neither did their wives. I probably have different politics from them, but I still love them as persons. And that's an important lesson during a time when we're so ideologically divided."

As mind-bending as his present bedfellows may seem, Stone says he eschews right-left distinctions, even when it comes to his most controversial movie, "JFK." "I never saw it as political," he says of the film, which outraged many with its suggestion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the tip of a broader conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. "It questioned the nature of reality, but it was not left wing-right wing." Indeed, Stone was reared, he says, as a "right-wing Republican." (His father was a stockbroker, and the inspiration for his 1987 film "Wall Street.") He supported Barry Goldwater as a teenager and dropped out of Yale after his first year to enlist in the Army. He served in the infantry in Vietnam and was wounded twice, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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