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Does 'World' Trade on Tragedy?

August 10, 2006 By:
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Stephen Dorff
Maria Bello knows firsthand from a history of violence.

The award-winning actress ("A History of Violence") and Norristown native digs through the debris of emotional destruction, sifting through the rubble of a role that led her to "World Trade Center."

"I was there that day," and in no way does one question what she means by "that day."

"I saw the smoke, the plane, the people in the street, all gray with ash, walking [like zombies]."

A walk on the wicked side as 9/11 became an emergency call to emotional heartbreak and action. And action was foremost on the actress' mind.

"My mother is a nurse [in] from Philly, and we hopped a ride on an ambulance to go to the hospital to help out."

But there was no help or healing "that day," as terrorists tore a hole in the soul of the nation, and the World Trade Center became the world center of attention for the deviltry of what man can do to man.

Meanwhile, "World Trade Center," which opened Aug. 9, is billed as an Oliver Stone movie, but it is not a chip off his old block.

The fiery stampede of ash and soot that engulfed the blocks around the World Trade Center after the terrorists took its turf as their own gets a clear-eyed portrait by the "bad-boy" biographer, whose lone conspiracy of purpose here seems to be to let the facts fulminate on their own.

And in leaving history to the hands of such talents as Bello, cast as Donna -- the benign-cum-bellicose wife of John McLoughlin, the Port Authority Police Department officer whose efforts that otherwise mundane morning led the sergeant into the arms of destruction -- Stone has managed to limn a life-affirming and luminous lantern of hope and heroics out of the crush of a crazed kamikaze mission that seared Manhattan mid-heart.

For Bello, just coming off an acclaimed role in "Thank You for Smoking," the smoke has lifted but the memories burn still. "Everything," she relates, "was in the moments."

There wasn't a moment when she didn't feel the need to get it right, not only out of responsibility to the part but to the woman she portrays. "I got to know Donna by doing the dishes with her," says Bello of those anything-but-Joy moments, when she scraped plates and gleaned scraps of insight into her character.

It all hit home. Being with her alter ego, well, "it reminded me of my house in Norristown."

That feeling of hearth and home was a healing one as she attempted "the most challenging role I ever played."

If "WTC" plays out as a spiritual allegory, it is no accident. Stone "is a very spiritual man," says Bello. "He has a huge heart."

And a huge hole in history to fill with this film. It is a major responsibility, this role as cinematic historian, especially for one who fell off the horse while assigned to bringing movie-goers the myth of Alexander the Great the last time out.

Is the greatness -- so evident in the Oliver Stone who directed "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July" -- reborn here? Is the revisionist historian whose vision of "JFK" was shot through with holes heedless of history able to hold back this time? Does Hollywood need a restraining order to ease Stone's grip on gripping drama and let it play out as it should?

Does Stone's "World" trade on the center's tragedy?

No, Stone rolls over his own accumulated image to get the job done. His 9/11 film is not by the numbers. Not that it was a surprise to producer Michael Shamberg, the Oscar-winning movie-maker who wanted unfiltered facts. After all, he had already earned attention with one "Pulp Fiction."

"We have an obligation to do this," says Shamberg of making this movie so soon after the actual incendiary incident.

After all, he says, a year after Pearl Harbor, "there were six or seven movies made about it," and the war.

A war of words has wrought some anxious moments for those dealing with 9/11 in 2006; "United 93" opened earlier this year to acclaim and anemic box office. ABC has chartered its own "Path to 9/11" for the fall season.

But the seasoned producer, who also scored Oscars for "Erin Brockovich" and "The Big Chill," thinks one of the nation's most chilling moments of history has to be depicted to reheat the rigors of memory.

"It may be too soon for fictional accounts," he agrees. "But if we only remember the tragedy, and not all the good we saw" in people helping others through the crisis, "then the record will be written by the bad guys."

And, for the record, Shamberg thinks that would be a sham and a shameful loss of an opportunity to serve history. Not that the silver screen is a flawless filter.

"My parents were in the Warsaw ghetto," he says, and for all the films made of that hellhole, the real thing "was worse than that."

Besides, he says, we are in the midst of a Mideast crisis that craters all excuses not to make such a film as "World Trade Center." "The Mideast reminds us of how we are all part of something, and this movie speaks to Jews, Christians and Muslims."

Unmuzzled history is what he seeks and is what he gets in a film for which, claims Shamberg, "Oliver deepened a good script; he made it better."

Between them Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff made the best out of a tragic event, basing their tale on the true life story of the McLoughlins and Allison and William Jimeno, another PAPD cop caught in the collision of the collapsing towers.

The set's scenario was one of agreement. "We were always on the same page; Oliver is very much in touch with his feelings."

As touching as the film is -- and it is -- Stone was grounded in the way he would portray ground zero. "He deliberately did not [recreate] the towers coming down or the planes hitting them. He wanted to keep to the television sets" broadcasting the real-life images in the film, "for credibility's sake."

Indeed, Shamberg has not forsaken the powerful terrible tears that streaked down the nations' collective cheeks that day and since. "I have never felt more of an obligation" to the truth.

Truth be told, no one was closer to it than Sgt. John McLoughlin, whose rush to judgment in attempting to clear a path of safety for those working at the World Trade Center brought the world literally crashing down on him.

Encased in a claustrophobic rut of rubble for 12 hours as paramedics, pitted against time, tried to rescue the rescuer, he had more than a foot in the grave. And these days, he has a leg up on memory; a chronic painful reminder of the day the earth stood still and then quickly collapsed around him.

Uncomfortable to sit up after a strenuous day discussing his real-life role on 9/11, the PAPD veteran reclines in bed, his legs propped up on pillows, while conducting an interview in a Center City hotel.

It's an ironic position for a man who has never taken life lying down, especially that fateful day. Just don't call him a hero or he'll call you out on it.

"Hero? Never have been. I was just doing my job," he says.

But his gnarled knee belies the inference that it was a routine rescue he was involved in. On duty during the 1993 terrorist attack at the trade center, he was on familiar ground the day the terrorists regrouped eight years later.

Indeed, the World Trade Center had become part of his own little world; McLoughlin, a college graduate with a business degree, made it his business to ensure the structure was safe -- he was responsible for reformatting the structure's escape protocols after the first attack.

But there was no escaping the fire this time.

"When you're there, you have a kind of tunnel vision," he says of the devotion to bringing survivors out of the wreck and chaos. "It's kind of eerie how they reproduced it" on film, as paramedics tunneled their way to save him.

What he remembers most is the sound and the fury of hate detonated on the streets. "The sound was unbelievable," he recalls of the trade center's impossible implosion. "I thought a truck bomb had gone off on Liberty Street."

In a way, he was liberated from pain right after the tragedy. "I spent the next six weeks in a coma," he says of the medically induced condition that would allow surgeons to put his body through dozens of life-saving operations. "Those next six months were not a good part of my life."

But life goes on, and what McLoughlin thinks would best commemorate and honor the horror and heroics of that day is a rebuilt structure. "I've been down there," he says of the "hole" that once swallowed him whole.

"I think we should put the life back into it" with offices, shopping, entertainment -- a structured testament to the inevitability of good following evil in a restructured society.

And the sergeant has mastered his own destiny once more, getting his life back from the front lines of death.

But then, he allows simply, how could he allow it to be any other way? "So many people worked so hard to get me out of there. The least I could do [as repayment] is to live my life to the fullest.

"You have a choice," he concludes. "You live life as a victim or a survivor.

"I chose to be a survivor." 

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