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01 September 2011

The end of the world

The end of the world

Looking for conversation starters, Sophie Lister finds relevant themes in popular culture…

How do you film the unthinkable?

This was the question facing director Oliver Stone as, just a few years after the destruction of the World Trade Center, he set about piecing together a story about the tragedy. Stone, known for courting political controversy with films like Vietnam War tale Platoon and conspiracy drama JFK, was clear about his intentions. This film would aim to avoid the 'mythologizing' of 9/11, which, according to Stone, both political sides were guilty of. Instead, it would be the story of a handful of ordinary people, showing the day's monumental events from an intimate perspective.

There was nothing 'ordinary' about any of the stories which emerged from Ground Zero, and the one that is brought to light in World Trade Center (2006) is so remarkable that it almost feels as though it were concocted by Hollywood. The truth is that the screenplay was carefully pieced together from the accounts of survivors and their relatives, taking great pains to paint an accurate picture.

When we meet police sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) and younger recruit Will Jimeno (Michael Peňa), the date now burned into our collective cultural memory is just another day for them. They awaken, go through their morning routines, head to work. Our knowledge of what is to come makes these mundane scenes almost unbearable to watch, and sure enough, it isn't long before a shadow is cast across New York. None of the officers, initially, grasp the scale of what is happening. But as they are called out to the scene, the truth begins to dawn upon the taciturn McLoughlin. "We're prepared for everything - but not this," he confesses. "Not something this size. There's no plan. We didn't make any."

Into the fray

Amid the chaos and debris, among crowds of people utterly at the mercy of events which they have not yet begun to comprehend, the policemen stand aghast. "The whole world's coming to an end," declares one, and he doesn't appear to be far wrong. The film so effectively conveys the devastation of the planes' initial impact that we find ourselves willing these men to flee the scene along with the public. But as so many did on the day, McLoughlin, Jimeno and their colleagues take the decision to run, not away from the burning buildings, but forward into the fray.

They don't even make it as far as the towers. With the collapse, McLoughlin, Jimeno and the others are left pinned beneath the rubble, and the camera draws slowly up out of their hole. It continues to climb, first above New York, so that we can see the fractured skyline and the billowing smoke, then rising above the planet. It's a comment, perhaps, on our inability to comprehend the scale of the suffering; on our comparative smallness in the face of all that evil can conjure. It seems, for a brief moment before the narrative lifts again, that all of the officers' courage and heroic impulses have simply been overcome by the darkness.

Indeed for many, on that day, there were no happy endings. There were no last-minute rescues, no rising out of the rubble, no tears of relief. World Trade Center - some would say to its detriment - draws back from such stories. But McLoughlin and Jimeno's tale is true, too, and it is laced with an extraordinary grace that shines a light even among all the horror. It suggests that somehow, in the midst of all that took place at Ground Zero, a God of goodness and love was still present.

Perhaps the filmmakers chose to tell McLoughlin and Jimeno's story, above any other, because we crave reassurance. After all, very few people would willingly turn out at the cinema just to be told that 9/11 was a senseless, hopeless tragedy. We want to know that nothing is meaningless - that goodness and love and bravery can win, even against seemingly overwhelming odds. But could it be that this is not mere wishful thinking, rather the reflection of a deeper reality? Atrocities in a godless universe can only be seen as chaos birthed by chaos - as the journalist and poet Steve Turner once put it, "the sound of man worshipping his maker". Our compulsion to hold on to hope, even in the face of the unspeakable, tells us that it cannot be so.

World Trade Center is available on DVD from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Sophie Lister writes for the Damaris Trust damaris.org

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