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Remembering the World Trade Center

How the twin towers were portrayed in movies before and since 9/11. By Erik Lundegaard

It doesn’t take long to get chills watching Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” The film begins with the red numerals of an alarm clock coming into focus. Port Authority cop John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) wakes up, takes a shower, checks the kids and leaves for work as dawn breaks over the Manhattan skyline. On his car radio we hear, “It’s Tuesday...”

For me, that’s all it took. I thought: “Yes, it was a Tuesday.”

TuesdayThat Tuesday I was spending what I thought was the last day of a week-long trip visiting my sister and friends in Detroit. My sister’s marriage was just two years old; her first son was just two months old. We were going to a Tigers game that night at Comerica Park and the next morning I would fly back to Seattle. I was already thinking ahead to Seattle.

I was sitting in their breakfast nook reading Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free-Press when my brother-in-law, Eric, who had just left for work, returned to stick his head in the front door. “You might want to turn on CNN,” he said. “A plane just flew into the World Trade Center.”

I assumed a single-engine. Hadn’t that happened to the Empire State Building?

When I turned on CNN and saw the damage and listened to the commentators, it became apparent that this was more than a single-engine. But how could a commercial plane be so off-course? How could you miss the World Trade towers? The eventual answer was: you couldn’t.

At one point I went upstairs to wake my sister — I had the baby monitor and the baby was waking— and when we all returned to the living room my sister, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, said, “I thought you said it flew into one tower.” I nodded. “So why are both on fire?”

I couldn’t figure it out. Then came news of the Pentagon and rumors of the Capitol. We’re under attack, I thought. When the towers collapsed, I thought: This is irreversible.

“I don’t think we’re going to the Tigers game tonight,” my sister said.

“I don’t think I’m flying out of here tomorrow,” I said.

All the while I kept thinking the same thought a lot of people were thinking: It feels like a movie.

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of landmarksWhile it was standing, the movies had never been particularly kind to the World Trade Center. It’s not so much that Hollywood tried to destroy the towers in movies like “Meteor,” “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact”; it’s the kind of movies the World Trade Center generally appeared in.

Other landmarks got good films. The Empire State Building played pivotal roles in classics like the original “King Kong,” “An Affair to Remember” and “Sleepless in Seattle.” Mt. Rushmore got its close-up in Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest.” The Statue of Liberty? From the histrionic ending of “Planet of the Apes” to the battle royale in “X-Men,” the Statue’s done it all. It’s the first thing immigrants see upon arriving in this country (“Godfather Part II”) and the last thing Americans see when leaving to fight abroad (HBO’s “Band of Brothers”).

The World Trade Center, in comparison, has appeared in crap. Not the original Kong but the much-panned 1976 re-make in which Kong leers, and Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) cheers wildly from one tower while Kong kills soldiers atop the other. Looking at its list of credits, it’s obvious the World Trade Center needed a better agent: “The Wiz,” “The Squeeze,” “The Dream Team,” “Big Business,” “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” “Godzilla,” “End of Days,” and a host of forgettable sequels: “Home Alone 2,” “Die Hard: With a Vengeance,” “American Pie 2,” and “Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan.” The towers, interchangeable and rarely pivotal, stayed in the background. They were the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of landmarks.

Let’s face it: before 9/11, the World Trade Center was never particularly beloved. “A standing monument to architectural boredom,” said one critic in the early 1970s. “Two huge buck teeth” blighting the Manhattan skyline, said Norman Mailer. Earlier skyscrapers tended to end like church spires, pointing towards the heavens — the Empire State Building is even called “The Cathedral of the Skies” — but tapering in means losing valuable real estate. Thus modern skyscrapers’ blocky shape. The World Trade Center pointed at nothing. It just stood there. It just was.

The towers came to represent not architectural beauty like the Empire State Building, nor the liberty of the Statue, but blunt financial power. “Greed is good,” Gordon Gekko famously says in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” and so the film begins with morning shots of the Manhattan skyline, with the World Trade Center front and center. “I have a head for business and a bod for sin,” Tess McGill says in Mike Nichols’ “Working Girl,” but this is a feel-good movie, and so in the single-shot opening, the focus is on another working girl, the Statue of Liberty, who gets her 360-degree close-up. The twin towers are once again relegated to the background.

Deeper meaningNow those very background shots take our breath away. God, the World Trade Center towered, didn’t it? It towered over even the New York City skyline, which towers over the world. Many cities have had one such tall building, but only New York, New York — the town so nice they named it twice — had the audacity to throw up two. Now that they’re gone, the skyline doesn’t look the same. Now that the buck teeth have been knocked out, we keep probing their absence with our tongue.

Certain scenes in pre-9/11 movies seem like bad foreshadowing. “Pushing Tin” from 1999 begins with a jet airliner banking toward the World Trade Center on a sky-blue day. Bennet Miller’s 1998 documentary, “The Cruise,” about existential New York City tour guide Timothy “Speed” Levitch, includes this Levitch monologue: “Sometimes I like to spin between the two towers. You know, like spin around and make yourself dizzy? And then you look up, and it looks like the buildings are falling on top of you.”

9/11 gave the World Trade Center the deeper meaning it never had in life, and Hollywood’s initial reaction was to remove it from any unreleased movie. “Zoolander”? Gone. “Spider-Man”? Gone. The towers now had too much meaning. We couldn’t bear looking at them.

Slowly, though, the World Trade Center began to reappear in our movies, and as it did, with its newer, deeper meaning, it showed up in only the best films. Halfway through Jacques Perrin’s beautiful documentary, “Winged Migration,” there it is, gloriously, one of many man-made landmarks birds pass by in their journeys. It’s the focus of the entire eighth episode of Ric Burns’ comprehensive “New York” documentary, and the two exclamation points punctuating the end of last year’s best film: Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.”

It’s also the centerpiece of the Naudet brothers’ stunning documentary “9/11,” which aired on CBS in the spring of 2002. The two French brothers were filming a year in the life of a probationary New York City firefighter stationed near the towers. On the morning of September 11 a crew was investigating a potential neighborhood gas leak when a plane soared overhead — something you never hear in Manhattan — and the firefighters looked up. Cameraman Jules Naudet followed their gaze and caught the only known footage of the first plane flying into the north tower. Most footage of the second plane flying into the south tower was taken from a distance by news organizations already at the scene of a disaster. Naudet’s footage is taken from the ground, by people in the middle of an ordinary day, doing an ordinary job, and the plane attacks a peaceful setting. It’s the worst violation imaginable. As you watch, rage courses through you all over again.

A less-Hollywood version of eventsThis year, the World Trade Center has been the subject of two major films: Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center.” Both have been the subject of controversy. Some feel Hollywood shouldn’t profit from this tragedy. The right-wing doesn’t trust liberal Hollywood to tell this story, while the left-wing doesn’t trust shallow, dumbed-down Hollywood to tell this story. Many people feel it’s just “too early.”

What all of this criticism ignores is that we’ve been telling ourselves the story of the World Trade Center every day since 9/11. The versions we tell ourselves are often fiercely partisan (see Karl Rove’s comments in New York in June 2005) and full of the conceits of Hollywood movies. These conceits include action-hero catch-phrases (“Let’s roll”; wanted “dead or alive”), bold and outsized personalities and an anticipation of a happy ending.

With these films, Hollywood is actually giving us a less Hollywood version of events than we’ve given ourselves. The films they’ve created are human-sized, the heroes ordinary men and women. In “United 93,” a passenger says “Let’s roll,” but quickly and anxiously, without the action hero cadence we’ve given it in our imaginations. (To be honest, I couldn’t even place which passenger says it.)

In “World Trade Center,” Nicholas Cage as John McLoughlin wears the most ordinary face a movie star can wear, and when his team of Port Authority cops show up at the south tower and look up, you see confusion and fear in their eyes. This isn’t in the manual, they seem to be thinking. When McLoughlin asks for volunteers to go inside, few do, and you don’t blame the others. Once inside, they don’t seem to know what to do. Because: This isn’t in the manual.

The first 30 minutes of “World Trade Center” are about as tense and gut-wrenching as any 30 minutes of film can be. Some may be grateful when the film loses this intensity; I was not, but, given its storyline, I would not know how to maintain it.

Ground ZeroThe twin towers of the World Trade Center rose a quarter-mile in the air and each was made of nearly 100,000 tons of steel. In the fall of 2002 I visited Ground Zero, at which point it looked like nothing so much as the construction site it had been in 1966. I remember looking up at a neighboring skyscraper that was maybe 50 stories high, and tried imagining it more than doubled to 110 stories. Then I tried imagining two of them, and both coming down. I could not. It seemed impossible.

The impossible destruction of the World Trade Center reminded many of us that day of a movie. Who would’ve thought Hollywood would help remind us that, no, it wasn’t like a movie at all.

Erik Lundegaard can be reached at: