Trying to generalize a reaction to a film like 'World Trade Center' is like trying to generalize our reaction to 9/11. It is just too personal an experience, even though it is one that we all shared. It is impossible to forget where you were, what you were doing, and who you were with when it happened. The images of the inferno, of smoke covering New York City, and of survivors fleeing in terror would overwhelm our senses throughout the days and weeks that followed. It is, quite simply, one of the most indelible moments in our nation's history. And, some have said, a moment that should never be depicted on screen, no matter how noble the intention.
So how could we not doubt Oliver Stone's 'World Trade Center?' More than a few eyebrows in Hollywood were raised when the fiery, political filmmaker first announced the project. Stone, director of such cinematic powder kegs as 'Platoon,' 'Born on the Fourth of July,' 'Natural Born Killers' and 'JFK,' is not a filmmaker known for moderation or sentimentality. As one of the first post-9/11 films to deal upfront with the cataclysmic event, critics immediately braced themselves for some sort of indictment. Who would Stone's targets be? Which conspiracy theories would he raise? Who would he blame? Turns out, there are no recriminations in 'World Trade Center.' Against all odds and expectations, Stone has made a positive, hopeful and meditative movie about a day that few remember as anything but.
The opening minutes of 'World Trade Center' are unbelievably tense. Nothing happens, but we all know what's coming. An ordinary day in New York City will soon become hell on Earth. Then it happens so quickly -- shockingly so. But when the first impact does hit, the sound that rings so loudly in our ears is silence. Stone must have used every fiber in his being to hold back. There is no bombast. There is no pyrotechnic display. There is no 'Saving Private Ryan'-like carnage. Only a short series of subtle images -- totems to the incomprehensible -- interspersed with fades to black.
Stone continues this restraint throughout 'World Trade Center.' The approach succeeds, sometimes magnificently. Rarely have I seen a Hollywood film that creates such power out of saying so little. Before the first collapse, as the Port Authority officers entered the tower, I felt my chest compress with the weight of intense dread, of the inescapable to come. The tension was palpable and, at times, almost unbearable. But Stone doesn't use those emotions for exploitation, but intsead illumination. Rather than attempt to describe "heroism," either through false dramatics or bad exposition, Stone simply depicts actions. For a good majority of the film, our perspective is the officers' perspectives.
Those expecting an intense visceral experience from 'World Trade Center,' or worse yet, some sort of action-rescue film a la 'The Towering Inferno,' will be sorely disappointed. Stone and screenwriter Andrea Berloff soon open up the film to the stories of two of the officer's wives (Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal, both delivering powerful performances) as well as the military officer (Michael Shannon) who will eventually attempt to rescue the men. These subplots may actually be the most controversial material in the movie. They certainly are the most conventional. Yet even here, Stone elevates the material by focusing on the ordinary. Washing a pair of pants inspires a moment of transcendence. A trip to the pharmacy ignites a call to action. The support of friends and neighbors renews communities and forges new bonds. Some of the trapped officers, even the non-religious, will turn to spirituality for salvation. They may even discover God himself.
It is essential to note that the story of 'World Trade Center' came from recollections of real-life firefighters Will Jimeno, Scott Strauss, John Busching and Paddy McGee, who survived many excruciating hours trapped beneath the rubble after venturing into the North tower before it collapsed. So the few answers, or at least conclusions, Stone comes to are not his -- and his commitment to telling that story may surprise his most voracious critics. For once, Stone isn't preaching. Instead, he is presenting a point of view, a subjective experience, and one that certainly can't be argued with. If this is what these men say they saw and felt, how could Stone depict their recollections any other way? We may question the validity of the spiritual journey the men say they experienced that day, but that's irrelevant. By simply illuminating, Stone achieves the existential.
I'll admit that I first approached seeing this film with some trepidation, as it met with a fair share of criticism upon its release. Some said it is reductive and myopic -- similar to objections raised over 'Schindler's List,' which also attempted to comprehend an overwhelming historical event by focusing on one person's story. Others found it disrespectful to the thousands of lives lost, because on a day when God seemed not to be listening to the cries of mankind, the film shamelessly manipulates the rescue of two firemen into a positive reaffirmation of faith. But after seeing 'World Trade Center,' I don't agree. No matter what your feelings about 9/11, and the idea of depicting its events so soon after the tragedy, you too may be surprised by your reaction to this film.
Paramount continues to run counter to current next-gen protocol and is actively supporting two-disc high-def releases. 'World Trade Center' is their third such double-disc set, after 'Mission: Impossible III' and 'Reds.' Though there is no definitive way to tell how this decision may be positively affecting video quality, at least on 'World Trade Center,' given that all of the supplementary material is presented in full 1080p video, it certainly seems possible that quality might have suffered had both the feature film and the extras been crammed onto a single HD-30 dual-layer disc.
As is, the 128-minute main feature gets a whole HD-30 all to itself, with only some deleted scenes and low-bitrate audio commentaries as disc buddies. And perhaps as a result, the quality of this 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 transfer is excellent. The source material is pristine. Blacks are rich and deep, while contrast has plenty of pop and remains consistent across the entire grayscale. I assume some post-production digital tweaking was done to the image, because it looks so clean -- in fact, it doesn't quite feel real. Yes, there is a bit of grain in some shots, but I welcomed it -- it gave the transfer a much-needed film-like texture. However, discerning eyes will also notice some slight noise -- right upfront, for example, some of the sunsets and skylines in the opening few minutes are more alive with glittering speckles. But for the vast majority of the film's runtime, the image is clean as a whistle.
Colors are quite saturated. Primary hues are especially blistering, with reds boasting the kind of stability that standard-def DVD just can't hold a candle to. Colors remain very clean, aside from the aforementioned minor noise. Fleshtones are absolutely perfect, with a deep orange that is quite striking. And despite the intense colors, I didn't feel they were so strong that they infringed on detail. Indeed, sharpness and depth of image during daylight scenes is often exemplary -- there are moments that are so three-dimensional it is downright disturbing, given the subject matter. My only caveat is that the film's visual design tends to overly-contrast dark scenes. The interiors of the World Trade Center sequences, after the firemen have been trapped, are so dimly lit they teeter on the edge of total blackness (I recommend watching the film in proper lighting conditions, or the image could be completely lost). Oliver Stone and his director of photography Seamus McGarvey lay on the blue filter, which doesn't help brighten things up. But that aside, this is a very impressive presentation.
Lastly, 'World Trade Center' offers the rare opportunity to do an immediate comparison between the HD DVD and Blu-ray versions, as they are being released simultaneously and Paramount sent us both in the same mailing for review. Despite the fact that the studio continues to use different codecs for each format -- HD DVD gets VC-1, Blu-ray goes MPEG-2 -- the image on both is very similar. My impressions are consistent with the differences I've been noticing between the two codecs. I tend to find MPEG-2 gives an image a slightly coarser, harder-edged look. Noise is a tad bit more pronounced versus VC-1, which gives off a smoother veneer. Again, though, these differences are minute enough that I suspect reactions could be different on other players and display devices. Based on 'World Trade Center' alone, I certainly wouldn't claim one codec superior over the other.
As with the video, I was able to do an immediate comparison of the HD DVD and Blu-ray presentations of 'World Trade Center's soundtrack. The latter lacks the Dolby Digital-Plus designator, and it turns out it is also encoded at 640kpbs, below the 1.5mbps of the HD DVD. Tech specs aside, I honestly couldn't distinguish between the two soundtracks. Note, though, that my Toshiba HD DVD player is connected to my receiver via the analog outs, while my PlayStation 3 is HDMI. Whether this has any impact is debatable, but the tracks were comparable.
That said, 'World Trade Center' is the first soundtrack I might call "respectful." How do you recreate such an awful day that few really want to remember, in all its verisimilitude? Apparently, with great tact. As Oliver Stone says in the supplements, the idea was to not to overwhelm or "punish" the audience sonically, but instead create a "manageable tension." Surround use is not bombastic or overwhelming. The rear channels do become engaged during the film's surprisingly brief scenes depicting the fall of the towers, and they are fairly immersive. Again, don't expect to be overwhelmed, which is probably the way it should be.
Technically, 'World Trade Center' sounds flawless. Frequency response is excellent across the board. Highs are smooth, mid-range spacious and warm, and low bass as tight as a drum. Craig Armstrong's simple, "child-like" (his words) score is nicely balanced in the mix, and almost becomes like another character. Dialogue is firmly rooted in the center channel and its cleanliness and intelligible is excellent. Given the artistic aims of the filmmakers, I can't give this soundtrack anything but high marks.
Paramount brings 'World Trade Center' to HD DVD and Blu-ray with a host of extras. Neither version gets preferential treatment, and both benefit greatly from all supplemental material being presented in 16:9 widescreen 1080i video. Perhaps I'm biased, but it really does elevate the next-gen experience for me, especially in the case of the extras for 'World Trade Center,' which come loaded with behind-the-scenes material that deserves to be presented in the best possible video quality. And hats off to Paramount for including English SDH captions, and English, French and Spanish subtitles on all of the set's video-based extras.
Disc one is highlighted by two audio commentaries. To be perfectly honest, I could not get through the first track with Port Authority officers Will Jimeno, Scott Strauss, John Busching and Paddy McGee, upon whose experiences 'World Trade Center' is based. After watching the film and absorbing it, hearing their memories -- which are still often painfully raw -- was just too much to take in all at once. You may want to plan out a separate sitting, just for this track -- I know I will. But it is still an indispensable addition, and the kind of document DVD (and now HD DVD) never gets credit for offering to the masses.
The second track with director Oliver Stone was far more palatable, at least in one sitting. That is not only because Stone is more humble and passionate than perhaps I've ever heard him. He is incredibly articulate and mannered about the challenges he and the filmmakers faced, not only in bringing the film to the screen amid much criticism, but also shooting in New York. Inevitably, the production encountered difficulties on the streets of the city with protestors, some even attempting to sabotage the shoot. Stone also thankfully addresses many of the controversial thematic elements in the picture, particularly Jimeno's claims that he saw a vision of Jesus as he neared death. Through it all, Stone maintains historical accuracy was the paramount concern. A very strong track, and perhaps Stone's best.
Also included on disc one are nine Deleted and Extended Scenes. Stone again offers optional commentary on all. I found most of these scenes played well on their own, but I can see why they were cut. Though offering interesting extensions to story threads in the film, none seemed essential to telling the story. Worth a watch, though.
Disc two contains a wealth of video-based documentary and promotional material. "The Making of 'World Trade Center'" runs 54 minutes and is divided into three parts: "Committing to the Story," "Shooting in N.Y. and L.A." and "Closing Wounds." This one is up there with the best docs I've seen for a new release. Stone granted intimate access to the production, which provides some terrific behind-the-scenes footage. The entire cast and main production personnel all contribute interviews as well, and are both honest and earnest. Any cries of exploitation were, for me, wiped out by "The Making of 'World Trade Center.'" No one creatively involved seems to care if the film would make a dime, and the direct involvement of the 9/11 survivors depicted in the film ensured absolute accuracy. If the doc perhaps sometimes veers a bit too much to the technical -- there is actually a discussion of focal lengths and camera lenses at one point -- I still really can't complain. If you don't want to make it through the audio commentaries, 'The Making of 'World Trade Center'" is comprehensive enough to take their place.
"Common Sacrifices" is an even tougher watch than the commentary with the firemen. It is also divided into multiple parts, "Rescue" and "Recovery." There is a warning right upfront about the graphic nature of some of the material, and these remembrances often turn very emotional. For someone like myself, who chose not to watch much footage of 9/11 even in the days and weeks after it happened, much of this revelatory. It also is ultimately uplifting, with considerable time spent on the survivors eventual recovery. I found this 55 minutes some of the best I've ever spent watching supplemental material on a DVD.
Two shorter featurettes round out the main extras, both focusing on Stone. "Oliver Stone's New York" is a rather intimate, up-close-and-personal interview with the director, who grew up in the city. We see him taking a tour of the area today, and his reactions and recollections are illuminating. "Q&A with Oliver Stone" was conducted in England before a live audience on the eve of 'World Trade Center's release. Stone respectfully and humbly answers questions about his intentions and hopes for the film. This feature is the only extra on the disc that is presented in 4:3 full screen and 480p video, as originally filmed.
Next up are another two featurettes, both centered on the film's special effects (and, of course, presented in glorious 1080i video). "Building Ground Zero" (25 minutes) is a straightforward look at the film's production design, but of course we are talking about recreating the ruins of the World Trade Center, not some shopping mall on the backlot of Paramount. The attention to detail, the design and authenticity of the highly complex schematics, and the commitment of the crew all make for a fascinating story on its own.
"Visual and Special Effects" (12 minutes) likewise tackles the relatively sparse but integral CGI needed to recreate the fall of the towers. Again, the wealth of production footage and crew interviews elevates this above your usual bland effects doc. I usually get bored by these types of tech featurettes, but I enjoyed both of these extras thoroughly.
Rounding out disc two is a Photo Gallery with about fifty production and publicity stills, plus the film's original Theatrical Trailer and five TV Spots. Note however that despite multiple tries, I could not get the Photo Gallery to operate on my Toshiba HD-XA1 HD DVD player. All other supplemental features on the disc worked fine, and I also had no problems accessing the Gallery on the Blu-ray version of 'World Trade Center.' Hmmph!
Oliver Stone's 'World Trade Center' is a controversial film, and one I quite frankly was initially predisposed against. Yet I came away admiring and appreciative of Stone's passion and restraint. An existential drama instead of an exploitative action/horror movie, 'World Trade Center' is worth seeing, even if you come away disagreeing with its approach. This HD DVD release is also excellent. The transfer and soundtrack are first-rate, and the truly insightful extras work both as making-of and historical document. A top-notch package, and highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.