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Issue Date:  September 15, 2006

Courage 'downtown' and at home

Oliver Stone's film about Sept. 11 disaster is powerfully moving; 'Little Miss Sunshine' disappoints


Expectations can greatly affect our response to a movie. I was wary of attending Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center because of earlier experiences of Mr. Stone’s emotional exaggeration and delight in conspiracies. In contrast, the new film has been highly praised even by conservative critics who had previously fulminated against this director’s “JFK.”

Here he fortunately shows great restraint, framing his story of Sept. 11 around two Port Authority policemen, John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña), who come to the city that day from nearby Jersey homes to become involved in an epic disaster. There’s wonderful footage of New York at Ground Zero, but Mr. Stone refuses to overwhelm us with horror. Though Mr. McLoughlin and Mr. Jimeno are under 20 feet of rubble during most of the film, they stand out as two brave men who are ultimately saved while 2,700 died. This is a powerfully realistic document, but it is to the director’s credit that he spent a good percentage of his huge budget recreating the wreckage on a back lot Ground Zero.

When the officers get the news that a plane has struck the World Trade Center, they accept their duty: “We’re going downtown.” Soon they themselves are victims, a mountain of debris on top of them, the camera revealing the determination in their eyes as they repeat their desperate one-liner to each other: “Don’t fall asleep.” Mr. McLoughlin is self-conscious about his own reserve -- “People don’t like me because I don’t speak a lot” -- while Mr. Jimeno talks more easily about his family.

Surprisingly and brilliantly, Mr. Stone keeps shifting back to the families of the victims and the humanity of their suburban lives. Mr. McLoughlin’s wife, Donna (Maria Bello), first seen asleep as he edges past her at dawn, seems under control, surrounded by her four children and concerned neighbors, while Mr. Jimeno’s pregnant wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), rushes in and out of her house, desperate in her inability to learn what has happened to her husband. Less convincing is the portrayal of ex-Marine Staff Sgt. Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who hurries to the World Trade Center from Connecticut, searches for the missing men and ends by preaching vengeance as his next mission.

Many will prefer not to relive the trauma of Sept. 11 and Mr. Stone’s film certainly offers no political insight into what brought about such a tragedy. There is a brief shot of George Bush in heroic pose together with the stunned exclamation of a bystander, “This country’s at war!” Yet what “World Trade Center” ultimately celebrates is just basic human courage and shared family values. At the end of this powerfully moving film, Mr. McLoughlin tells his wife, “You kept me alive,” and the audience can only extend its heartfelt consent.

In “World Trade Center” I expected little, and got more. With Little Miss Sunshine, acclaimed even by sophisticated critics after gaining plaudits at the Sundance Film Festival, I expected too much, and was disappointed.

It has a promising premise: Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), an inept motivational speaker, takes his oddly assorted Albuquerque, N.M., family on a 700-mile trip to California because his charming 7-year-old daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), has been chosen to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine contest. We meet them first eating a typical family dinner at home: a bucket of take-out chicken on paper plates. Richard’s wife, Cheryl (Toni Collette), has taken in her brother Frank (Steve Carell), a deeply depressed Proust scholar recovering from a suicide attempt who now shares a room with an older son, Dwayne (Paul Dano), who reads Nietzsche and talks to no one. Dwayne is disciplining himself physically and spiritually for his dreamed-of career as a pilot, and feels nothing but contempt for his father. Then there is Grandpa, Richard’s heroin-snorting father (Alan Arkin), sometimes too foul-mouthed to be genuinely amusing, who has been privately coaching Olive for the contest.

All this may be too much whimsy for a family comedy, but this doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t fitfully amusing. Early in the trip, the car’s transmission gives out, and the vehicle has to be pushed until the driver is in third gear, at which point the passengers who have been running alongside hurl themselves into the car, one at a time -- a great running gag. Another example: the brief, often hilarious notes written by the silent son Dwayne; Mr. Dano gives an amazing performance, simply by moving his eyes and mouth.

In at least two instances, this satire on the cult of success in America works well at exposing the hypocritical compassion of the hospital administrators when Grandpa is taken there, and the pretensions of parents and young girls involved in imitating an adult beauty contest.

Meanwhile, the more disastrous the events, the greater the thaw among the family members. Richard’s cell-phone efforts to enhance his career come to naught, but his father unexpectedly praises him for trying. When Dwayne is told he’s colorblind and can never qualify for the Air Corps, his explosive reaction leads to greater human contact with Olive, and the Proust scholar cheers up somewhat as he sees the suffering around him.

The movie comes to a climax in a scene I won’t disclose. Grandpa has pulled a fast one on them all in the act he has designed for Olive, but it brings the family together in a finale that challenges the hypocrisy of the wider culture.

Overall, it seems that those making the movie were simply trying too hard. Or maybe they just didn’t have the Marx Brothers to work with.

Joseph Cunneen is the regular movie reviewer for NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2006

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