Oliver Stone’s 9/11 movie World Trade Center hit me hard in the gut. I saw the film in the summer of 2006 in a mostly empty multiplex theater, a stone’s throw from Ground Zero, then still a sad wasteland. As a New Yorker and a journalist I had lived and breathed the September 11 attacks for years. I had met relatives of victims and colleagues of perished firemen. I attended memorials on each 9/11. Walking out of the theater I remember feeling empty and overwhelmed by the experience Stone had re-created. I also recall wondering if it was too soon, five years after the terrible fact.
Today, the haunting 9/11 Memorial is done. A new World Trade Center has arisen around it. Downtown is a tourist destination. And kids all over the world have barely a clue what happened on that day.
For them, and for all of us, director Martin Guigui has made 9/11. Which raises the question: Isn’t it too late?
It’s a brutally literal title, but the film is small and nuanced. Based on the play The Elevator, Guigui has created a deeply human, poetic story of not just connection between strangers but the possibility of survival that flows from a – risky – willingness to connect and work together.
The story is straightforward. Five strangers get trapped in an elevator in the North Tower when the first plane hits. With no way out and no information, they gradually start dropping their guards, which had been way up – naturally, they are New Yorkers. A wealthy, argumentative couple about to be divorced (Charlie Sheen and Gina Gershon) find themselves talking to a moody bike messenger (Wood Harris), a big-hearted janitor (Luis Guzman) and a medicated woman in red (Olga Fonda). A kind but slightly scatter-brained elevator operator (Whoopi Goldberg) tries to help them when the intercom works.
The narrative is simple and the ending all too well-known. Although, like I said, young people might not know. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the sorry state of knowledge and wisdom of the generation attacking free speech and tearing down statues without a clue what they represent.
Director Guigui told me as much after a Los Angeles screening: he means the words “never forget” that start the end credits literally. Most teenagers weren’t born when 9/11 happened. He made this film for them. And in early screenings the feedback from youngsters was, indeed, one of surprise and wonder, he said.
The simplicity of the well-paced story demands that the characters are strong. For a claustrophobic little film to work, you need big personalities on the page and strong actors to embody them. This eclectic cast pulls it off. The film comes it at just under 90 minutes; I love directors who know how to make a tight movie with nothing left to cut. In that time Sheen makes a comeback of sorts to dramatic work, after being a funny guy on TV for years. Watching him as billionaire Jeffrey you forget his substance abuse, his rants, the drama surrounding his HIV. He was and still is a good actor. Alongside his estranged wife, his Jeffrey becomes the focal point in that elevator. Oddly for a man who starts the film as a morally bankrupt douchebag, Sheen’s Jeffrey turns into something like the moral victor. By his side, Guzman is wonderful as ever: witty, emotional, the solid guy you need on your team in any crisis.
But of course, controversy follows Sheen once again. Over a decade years ago Sheen had one of his countless annoying, uniformed outbursts. On Alex Jones’ show he expressed his belief that 9/11 was an inside job. At the time no one was surprised that Sheen believed in crackpot conspiracy theories. It didn’t matter. Now that he plays a role in this film it kind of does. Family members of victims have expressed disgust about a “9/11 truther” appearing here. I understand that response, and it will be interesting to see whether Sheen apologizes. It’s never too late, man. We know you were probably high — you were definitely wrong.
Guigui has maintained in recent weeks that Sheen was simply the right guy for the job. His goal was as simple as the script: show respect for everyone affected by 9/11. “This is an inspiring story about the heroes,” Guigui told the New York Daily News. “It’s really about the first responders and people who sacrificed their lives to save others.”
United 93, another brave movie about the day of the attacks, came out in 2006 as well. It showed what may have happened aboard Flight 93, whose passengers chose heroism over passivity. What I love about both efforts is how they chose to focus on the quick trust between strangers. The key is not the cowardly mass murder, but the countless acts of humanity.
So is it too late, 16 years after 19 jihadists killed 2,959 innocents in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania?
The victims ranged in age from 2 to 85 years. They came from all over the world. Death at the hands of terrorists didn’t discriminate. Every race, religion, and background is represented when their names are read on the morning of every September 11. Martin Guigui pays homage to all of them by zooming in, gently but starkly, on a handful. It’s his own act of kindness, whose timing is just fine.
9/11 opens nationwide Friday. It is rated R for language, but older children will very likely appreciate the film.