How do you judge a director who changes his style?
If a director’s latest movie deviates from his usual style or genre, will you judge it differently because of that? —Lisa
I’d like to believe that I wouldn’t judge it differently, but there’s no denying that I might think about it differently. A case in point is Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center. It’s a movie that just about everyone, pro or con, seems to have watched by taking it in through the lens of this singular and controversial filmmaker’s career. Much of the praise has centered around the type of movie it is: sentimental, ”non-political,” unabashedly patriotic. In other words, the very sort of movie that Oliver Stone is supposed to never have made before.
Let’s leave aside that Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July are profoundly patriotic films; so, to me, are JFK and Nixon — at least, if the true definition of patriotism is to love your country enough to crusade againt its flaws. That said, there’s no denying that World Trade Center is uncharacteristic of Stone in its elemental salute to American fortitude and survival on one tragic day. He has been praised, from the right and the left, for putting aside all that pesky conspiracy stuff to craft a proudly ”mainstream” movie. To me, though, this overpraises Stone for the act of shifting ideological/emotional gears (and it also underrates his previous work). You could argue that he has been lionized, during a time of national anxiety, for getting with the program, as if World Trade Center were stirring evidence that he’d had a ”change of heart” about America. To me, that’s judging the man — or a certain image of him — more than it is the movie.
That said, what of my own mixed review? I wrote that World Trade Center ”isn’t a great Stone film; it’s more like a decent Ron Howard film.” So what of it? Would I have been kinder to the movie if it was, quite literally, a decent Ron Howard film? On the one hand, I don’t think so. My essential criticism of World Trade Center is that it’s a humane and honorable movie that, despite the cataclysmic subject of 9/11, isn’t nearly as dramatic as it might have been. I think that if Ron Howard had been at the helm, I would have pointed that out and handed the movie the same grade of B.
Yet I admit: I probably wouldn’t have been as disappointed. As one of Oliver Stone’s most fervent champions over the last 15 years, I instinctively set the bar high for him, because I know what he’s capable of: not just the darkly swirling politics of ”conspiracy,” but a fevered and layered vision of American freedom and violence — a vision of how this country, in its collective psyche, really works. In my review, I pointed out that United 93, a far more dynamic and brilliant film, is really quite Stone-like in its electric immediacy (it reminds me, in certain ways, of the style of Stone’s Salvador), and though United 93 didn’t have any conspiracy theories either, it had a subtle, almost unstated political dimension in its characterization of the terrorists. It humanized them — which only made their actions more horrific. That’s the sort of filmmaking I expect, or at least want, from Oliver Stone, and as a critic attempting to be as honest as possible about my own convictions, I would have been lying not to say so.
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