Stone assesses Sept. 11 project

Times Staff Writer

Two men, a rookie police officer and his boss, are trapped 20 feet below a collapsed building. Their bodies are being crushed by massive chunks of cement and have begun to swell. Though they're relative strangers, they spend the next 14 hours goading each other to live, while their families worry over their fate and a ragtag group of rescuers tries to save their lives.

It might be a typical Hollywood disaster movie, but it's actually scenes from the script (obtained by the Los Angeles Times) of the upcoming film about Port Authority police officers Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin, among the last people rescued from the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. And it is being brought to the screen by Oliver Stone, long seen as the nation's premier conspiracy-theorist-turned-director.

"It's not about the motives of the terrorists, or who the terrorists were, or the politics of 9/11 in any way," said Stone, whose involvement in the film (which will star Nicolas Cage) was made public by Paramount Pictures last week. "It's about people standing together and overcoming the problem. It's a no-nonsense, austere, verite document of what they went through in those 24 hours, a procedural if you like, and it should be shot like that."

Word of Stone's participation immediately led to convulsions on the Internet, where bloggers cracked morbid jokes about what Stone might deliver, and whether the director -- who proffered a revisionist theory of the Kennedy assassination in his 1991 film "JFK" -- would be a suitable candidate to tackle one of the most sensitive topics in recent American history. Others winced at the timing of Paramount's press release one day after the bombings in London.

A year from now, when the film presumably will be released, close to the fifth-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, audiences might be wondering whether they want to shell out 10 dollars to relive the experience. The riveting and well-crafted script -- by 31-year-old newcomer Andrea Berloff -- is not political. But it is disturbing, with shots of people jumping out of the towers and characters dying under slabs of concrete. Stone's visceral style of directing could amplify the terror experienced by the policemen and, consequently, by the audience.

"[The project] came to me," said Stone, who says he was given the script by his Creative Artists Agency agent Bryan Lourd back in late December, although he wasn't offered the project until May. "If it hadn't come to me, I wouldn't have done it. [The script] just hit me between the eyes."

The director himself thinks that a film about 9/11 should have "been done right away. I don't think you should run from things. You should confront them. It's better for the country. Look at the English [reaction to the recent London subway bombings]. They took it and absorbed it and continued on. They didn't run around and call for huge pieces of legislation costing billions of dollars to defend our homeland and create a huge war in a foreign country."

That is just the sort of subtext that conservative Internet bloggers believe could infuse a film in Stone's hands. Given the narrative story arc of the script, though, it would be hard for a director to add explicit political content, with the two major protagonists spending most of the film in a hole, unaware that the towers have even fallen down.

While allusions to 9/11 have begun to filter through pop culture -- most notably in Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" allegory -- the untitled Stone film is on track to become the first high-profile studio film to explicitly deal with the tragedy. Although Spielberg's film earned largely glowing notices, some reviewers were troubled by his use of 9/11 imagery, and others have begun to wonder whether the gritty darkness of "War of the Worlds" has turned off some moviegoers. Disaster films usually work on the principle that the on-screen mayhem is a fantastical occurrence, a freakish event that will be suitably confronted, and resolved, by the film's hero.

Hollywood has traditionally taken years to explore wounds to the national psyche. It took more than a decade from the start of American involvement in Vietnam for Hollywood to produce "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter," and another decade before Stone made "Platoon." Some episodes from American history -- the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima -- have barely been examined by Hollywood.

Stone, who's coming off the flop "Alexander," has long been a lightning rod for his controversial stances on everything from Kennedy to Castro. In the aftermath of 9/11, the director was excoriated by members of the press for suggesting that the attacks were a revolt against multinationals, "a rebellion against globalization, against the American way," he said at the time. He told the New Yorker about his fantasy of making a "bullet of a film about terrorism, like 'The Battle of Algiers,' " the 1966 film about the Algerian war in which director Gillo Pontecorvo's sympathies lie with the FLN terrorists. "You show the Arab side and the American side in a chase film with a 'French Connection' urgency, where you track people by satellite, like in 'Enemy of the State.' My movie would have the CIA guys and the FBI guys, but they blow it. They're a bunch of drunks from World War II who haven't recovered from the disasters of the '60s -- the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam. My movie would show the new heroes of security, the people who really get the job done, who know where the secrets are."

After Friday's announcement connecting the director to the project, bloggers had a field day with visions of a stereotypical Stone paranoid fantasy. "Is Hollywood so out of touch it thinks Stone's version of 9/11 is what America is clamoring for? After 'Alexander,' at that?" asked blogger Mickey Kaus, while another enterprising blogger on the Huffington post wrote up a fake version of the script in which the two lead characters discuss a possible conspiracy in highly inflammatory terms.

In fact, the script, which might be the most coherent, moving piece of material to fall into Stone's hands in over a decade, appears to be a straightforward account of the rescue of Jimeno and McLoughlin (the latter to be played by Cage). The story also focuses on their families, and their ad hoc group of rescuers, which includes a born-again Christian former Marine, who drove in his Porsche from Connecticut to help out, as well as a recovering-alcoholic-former paramedic with an expired license and a couple of New York City police officers who at one point had nothing but a pair of handcuffs with which to dig Jimeno out. While waiting to be rescued, one of the policemen even dreams of Jesus.

According to one source close to the project, producers Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher ("Erin Brockovich") bought Jimeno's and McLoughlin's life rights out of their private development fund, after being brought the story by the late Debra Hill. Screenwriter Berloff has spent extensive time interviewing the real life participants in the drama. This is her first produced screenplay. The film was initially set up at Universal but is now being produced at Paramount.

The film project does bring Stone back to the blue collar terrain of some of his most successful works: "Platoon" and "Born on the Fourth of July." He met with both Jimeno and McLoughlin. "I found them both to be courageous, deeply wounded people. They're both still suffering from the injuries," said Stone, who then quoted Jimeno. "Will said this is a testament not to the evil, but to the good that we as human beings are capable of. That's important. That's healing."

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