So there I am watching Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, about the rescue efforts in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and specifically the ordeal of two firefighters trapped under a huge heap of rubble. Up on the screen, the wives and families of the two men are (quite understandably) alternating between hysteria and calculated stoicism, and there’s generally heaps of emotion on display - both suppressed and vented. And then a friend leans across and says, “Isn’t all this a bit Hindi film-ish?”
I get peeved when people use the term “Hindi film-ish” loosely (and with a hint of condescension) to describe anything they feel is melodramatic or overwrought (hence “unrealistic”). Two reasons for this: one, Hindi movies didn’t invent the tradition of melodrama, it’s existed in different forms across cultures, and for long before cinema came into being. Attributing anything that’s perceived as overly dramatic to “the Bollywood influence” is every bit as uninformed as watching a Hollywood musical for the first time and saying “yeh toh hamaare Hindi films ki copy hai”.
The other reason has to do with something I’ve discussed on this blog before – the fact that cinematic “realism” is a chimerical thing at the best of times. A very basic example: a scene where a man beats his chest and wails loudly in the face of tragedy might seem melodramatic, even unrealistic, to a viewer who doesn’t believe in showy displays of emotion in public. But different people have different realities: what’s being depicted in that scene might be completely consistent with the way that character would react in that situation. All that matters is the consistency with which the film depicts a specific, self-contained world.
Also, as Vikram Chandra nicely articulated in this interview, “what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life!” (Can’t help agreeing with him there; I’m an unexpressive, emotionally constipated piece of deadwood myself, but you should see the stuff that goes on in my family – such as daily morning fights with housemaids that turn into orgies of recrimination, tears and emotional blackmail.)
World Trade Center isn’t about Indian families, but that's hardly the point here. Think about it: something as momentous as 9/11 happens, thousands of people first recoil in horror, then panic, break down, spend hours lashing out at each other and comforting each other, and end the day either with tears of relief or by grieving horribly. Given all this, is it so hard to believe that there were instances of REAL people behaving in ways that would seem embarrassingly “melodramatic” and “Hindi filmi” when watched onscreen? The problem is to a large extent with our own perceptions; too many of us have been conditioned to be uncomfortable about (and suspicious of) any cinematic portrayal of extreme emotion.
I had mixed feelings about World Trade Center – not because of the dramatic scenes but because (and I know this is actually a pointer to the film’s effectiveness) it made me feel very tired and claustrophobic. This will happen when the bulk of a film involves two men (characters you’ve come to know and sympathise with) buried several metres below the ground, unable to even move, simply talking to each other in order to stay awake and sane. That’s the real-life story of policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two of only 20 people who were pulled out alive from the wreckage of 9/11. McLoughlin and Jimeno entered the buildings as part of a rescue squad, hoping to save at least some of the people trapped on the upper levels, but they never got a chance to do anything seriously heroic, in fact never even made it beyond the ground floor; just a few moments into the operation, they were the ones who needed rescuing.
The summer’s other 9/11 film was United 93 (which I reviewed here), and though that was docudrama-like in its treatment, there’s something inherently gripping about the story of an airplane held hostage by terrorists. By comparison, the basic scenario in World Trade Center – two men conclusively trapped underground, with nothing to do but wait for help – is a static one. Oliver Stone tries to compensate for this by incorporating a number of flashbacks, mostly in the form of the hallucinations experienced by the buried men as they drift between consciousness and semi-consciousness. Unfortunately, these bits don’t hold up too well – they jar with the rest of the film. Showing the tribulations of the wives and families works well enough as visual relief.
But World Trade Center is an indisputably well made film otherwise, at its very best in the early scenes where the firefighters, led by McLoughlin, reach the general vicinity of the skyscrapers and slowly start to edge their way towards the rumbling buildings. This is stuff that the finest horror-movie directors would have been proud of – you get a visceral, firsthand impression of what it must have been like for those men to approach the Twin Towers (at that point, no one imagined that the two buildings would come crashing down, but it must have been terrifying even without that knowledge).
We don’t actually see the towers too often in this scene (the abiding image is that of thousands of sheets of paper pouring out of the windows, like a nightmare version of those glass paperweights you turn upside down to simulate a snowfall), but we feel their awesome presence at all times – this is one of the few times that I’ve found the Dolby experience to be really effective in a movie hall. It’s like two angry active volcanoes have been transplanted to this urban setting and the firefighters are walking right into the heart of the inferno. This is an incredibly effective scene, and what follows is only marginally less gripping. Compared to some of Oliver Stone's recent work (Alexander, U-Turn, even Any Given Sunday) this is a surprisingly straightforward film – it looks like he's rediscovered the merits of good old-fashioned storytelling.