October 12, 2006
Upon This Stone
— Jerome Joseph Gentes
In the recent film World Trade Center, Officer William Jimeno, trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed tower, has a vision of Christ. He describes the vision, one that a Catholic in extremis might understandably have, to his commanding officer, Sergeant John McLoughlin, who also lies trapped a short distance away. McLoughlin later has a vision of his own: On the verge of losing consciousness, he sees his wife Donna standing amidst the rubble.
The movie's script is based on these two men's actual experiences on September 11, 2001, but the man ultimately responsible for what audiences see is, of course, the movie's director, Oliver Stone. Praise for the film has become something of a cultural event in itself, with Stone and his work being hosannaed as if he were a heretic who finally saw the light. And though you sometimes have to search for it much the way rescuers searched for Jimeno and McLoughlin, Christian — and specifically Catholic — symbology is evident in this film. In particular, images of Mary and of the resurrection speak to Oliver Stone's Catholic sensibility in this movie.
Throughout the movie, various scenes establish a profound, almost psychic connection between spouses; one spouse remembers a shared experience, while the other seems to be simultaneously recalling it from his or her own perspective. That McLoughlin would "see" his wife, played by actress Maria Bello, is, under the circumstances, understandable. What gives pause is the fact that she is shown wearing the same shirt she wears in other scenes — and yet, McLoughlin had left for work before she woke, and would not have known what she was wearing that day. Sky blue, the shirt does more than complement Bello's complexion and blond hair; it also visually facilitates the transitions between the murkiness under the rubble and the sunlight elsewhere. But there is religious significance to the shirt and its appearance in McLoughlin's vision, as well.
Catholics like McLoughlin and Jimeno, and like the director's own mother, would likely see in this blue shirt connections with Mary, Christ's mother. Since the earliest days of the church, the blue of her garments has symbolized Mary's humanity, and for Catholics, she is an intercessor between humans and God. A husband believing himself on the brink of death would naturally think of his wife; perhaps only a Catholic would fuse her image with that of Christ's mother. Stone's decision to clothe the actress in a blue shirt resonates all the more in light of the fact that the wife's name, Donna, might here be read as an abbreviation of "Madonna." Meanwhile, the actress's name, Maria, is, of course, the name by which the Virgin is known in many parts of the world.
Jimeno is finally rescued late on September 11, but McLoughlin is trapped further down; it takes all night and most of the following morning to extract him. He is pulled to the surface through an opening amidst the debris in a scene shot from McLoughlin's point of view. The camera rises up, the rescuers reach down. This powerful sequence suggests birth and rebirth — and indeed, Jimeno and McLoughlin go into one world that morning and emerge into quite another one. When McLoughlin resurfaces from beneath the debris — his resurrection — it is the morning of September 12, and the eyes of his rescuers shine with apostolic hope. Here as elsewhere, some of the religious resonances may have been part of the officers' experiences, but they are ultimately selected and shaped by the director.
Stone established his reputation at the dawn of the blockbuster age; his early work suggested that he had the daring to step in line with mavericks like Scorsese, Coppola, and Altman. Like them, he never lost his fervor for moviemaking and his passion for large, sometimes controversial subjects — but like them, he has also been erratic. But one commentator at The New Yorker said that with World Trade Center the director has, "in his way, come home." Newsweek called the movie "an act of commemoration," while the New York Times said it was "astonishingly faithful."
Stone's faithfulness to the harrowing visual and emotional specifics of September 11 aside, I think this film isn't his homecoming so much as an act of contrition, as Catholic as it is cinematic. Time and his next film will prove whether audiences retain their sense of restored faith in him, and whether he remains — or even is — as faithful as some believe him now to be.
Jerome Joseph Gentes is a freelance writer based in New York City.