When World Trade Center ended, I left the theater tense, my muscles aching. The superb directing and acting, coupled with still hardly imaginable scenes of death and destruction, had sent painful muscle spasms up my back, evoked tears, and left me, yet again, with searing and indelible images of that hellish morning.
I felt disoriented in the bright sunlight of a Northern Californian afternoon. As my mind regained its critical faculties, however, another kind of shock set in. I suddenly realized that Oliver Stone’s movie reinforces the Big Lie — endlessly repeated by Dick Cheney, echoed and amplified by the right-wing media — that 9/11 was somehow linked to Iraq or supported by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
It might surprise you that this Oliver Stone film is neither ideological, nor conspiratorial, which in my view is just as it should be. Instead, it is a portrayal of what the men who braved hell and the families who anguished over their survival experienced.
World Trade Center gives 9/11 a distinctly human face by following two Port Authority policemen and their families. We watch the men muster their courage to help evacuate people in one of the towers; we gasp as they are buried alive; we wince as heavy slabs of cement crush their bodies; and we hold our breath as they struggle to keep each other going in the face of imminent death.
Expert editing brings us the anguish suffered by their wives, children, and relatives. Some are in denial, others in shock. Some have faith; others are resigned to the men’s deaths. They live in their own hell and we empathize with their wrenching agony.
With a subtle touch, Stone shows us people all over the planet horrified by television images of the airplanes crashing into the towers. He reminds us that the people of the world expressed an outpouring of sympathy (since squandered by the Bush administration).
Meanwhile, Stone introduces us to one ex-Marine who feels called by God to help rescue those buried alive. He gets his hair cut short, puts on his old uniform, and with all the authority of a former staff sergeant, does what he knows best — uses his military skills to save people’s lives. Determined and angry, he insists that we must avenge this horrendous attack.
We also watch a group of Wisconsin policemen viewing the terrorist attacks on television. One screams out, “The bastards!” Stone, in other words, captures the desire for revenge already in the air.
And yet, in none of these profoundly moving scenes is there even a mention of who might have committed this atrocity. Neither the name al-Qaeda, nor Osama Bin Laden, is so much as whispered.
You might say, “But everyone knows it was al-Qaeda.” And you’d be right, but do most Americans really know just who those terrorists were or that they had no connection to Iraq — that not a single one of them even came from that country? It doesn’t sound very important until you realize that various polls over the last five years have reported from 20% to 50% of Americans still believe Iraqis were on those planes. (They were not.) As of early 2005, according to a Harris poll, 47% of Americans were convinced that Saddam Hussein actually helped plan the attack and supported the hijackers. And in February, 2006, according to a unique Zogby poll of American troops serving in Iraq, “85% said the U.S. mission is mainly ‘to retaliate for Saddam’s role in the 9-11 attacks’; 77% said they also believe the main or a major reason for the war was ‘to stop Saddam from protecting al Qaeda in Iraq.’”
The Big Lie, first coined by Adolf Hitler in his 1925 autobiography Mein Kampf,was made famous by Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister for the Third Reich. The idea was simple enough: Tell a whopper (the larger the better) often enough and most people will come to accept it as the truth. During World War II, the predecessor of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, described how the Germans used the Big Lie: “[They] never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”
This is, in fact, just what the Bush administration has been doing ever since 9/11. As a result, in 2005, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that 56% of Americans still thought Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction “shortly before the war,” and 60% still believed Iraq had provided “direct support” to al-Qaeda prior to the war. In June 2006, Fox News ran a story once again dramatizing the supposed links between 9/11 and Iraq. And, as recently as July, 2006, a Harris poll found that 64% of those polled “say it is true that Saddam Hussein had strong links to Al Qaeda.”
The Bush administration’s Big Lie has worked very well. Dick Cheney, the point man on this particular lie, has repeated it year after year. In a similar way, George Bush has repeatedly explained his 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11, by insisting that we must fight terrorists in that country so that we don’t have to fight them here. (It turned out to be something of a self-fulfilling prophesy.)
Neither these, nor so many other administration statements had a shred of truth to them. Even the President, who repeatedly linked Saddam Hussein to the terrorist organization behind the September 11th attacks, admitted on September 18, 2003 that there was no evidence the deposed Iraqi dictator had had a hand in them. But that didn’t stop the Vice President from endlessly repeating the Big Lie that justifies this country’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Most of the controversy over World Trade Center has focused on whether, as the fifth anniversary of the attacks approaches, it is still too soon for a cinematic depiction of these horrendous events. For some people, perhaps that may well be the case. I myself don’t think it’s too soon for such a film; but I do worry that, powerful and evocative as it is, it may, however inadvertently, only deepen waning support for the war in Iraq,
Despite the near flood of documentaries on the terrorist attacks heading toward the small screen this September, Stone’s film, for many Americans, may end up being the definitive cinematic record of what it felt like to be inside the hellish cyclone known simply by the numbers 9/11.
To offer a faithful recreation of that historical catastrophe, however, Stone owed viewers the whole truth, not merely a brilliant, graphic portrayal of what happened and how it affected the lives of some of those involved.
As it ends, a written postscript appears that describes what happened to the buried Port Authority policemen, their families, and the ex-Marine who helped rescue them (whose last line is: “We’re going to need some good men out there to revenge this”). We learn that the two men survived an unbearable number of surgeries and are living with their families. Next we read that the ex-Marine re-upped and later did two tours of duty in Iraq. At that moment, I wanted to shout out, “Don’t you mean Afghanistan?” Then I imagined the satisfaction Dick Cheney and sore-loser Senator Joseph Lieberman would take in this not-quite-spelled-out linkage of 9/11 and Iraq.
I kept waiting for what never came — even a note in the postscript reminding the audience of those who had actually committed the crime. This is where, by omission, Stone’s film ends up reinforcing the administration’s Big Lie. You could easily have left the theater thinking that the saintly ex-Marine had gone off to fight those who attacked our country.
That evening, I wrote the words that should have appeared in the postscript: “Government officials later confirmed that the organization which plotted the destruction of the World Trade Center was al-Qaeda, led by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian. Nineteen men executed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Fifteen of them came from Saudi Arabia; the remaining four from Egypt, The United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. None of them came from Iraq.”
What happened to Oliver Stone, the filmmaker who gave us Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Wall Street, and Nixon? Despite his conspiratorial foibles in JFK, he has long been a movie-maker dedicated to raising tough questions about our American past. Where did his commitment to opening historical subjects for debate go? He was right not to politicize this film, but truth-telling required that he identify the terrorists. Truth-telling would have resulted in his helping to dismantle the Big Lie that has resulted in the deaths of so many American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, and has plunged Iraq into chaos and civil war.
How could Oliver Stone leave it up to viewers to discover for themselves who committed this crime? And how could he leave the audience with the impression that there was a connection, as Dick Cheney has never stopped saying, between 9/11 and Iraq?
This is the tragic failure of Stone’s World Trade Center. It undercuts the historical value of the film and reinforces the Biggest Lie of the last five years, still believed by far too many Americans — that in Iraq, we are fighting those who attacked our country.
Historian and journalist Ruth Rosen, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a senior fellow at the Longview Institute. A new edition of her most recent book, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (Penguin, 2001), will be published with an updated epilogue in 2007.
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing.]