Director Oliver Stone is no stranger to tackling difficult subject matter. In the months following the release of Platoon in the mid-1980's, he was admired as the director who had brought a sober depiction of the Vietnam War to the screen. Within a few years, however, a steady stream of films eroded some of this enthusiasm. While some viewers continued to embrace his vision, in films like Born on the Fourth of July and Natural Born Killers, to many people it seemed as though Stone was veering into fringe territory. Upon the release of his conspiracy-tinged movie JFK, it was clear he could be a deeply polarizing filmmaker. Although many fans continued to admire the director, increasingly his films preached to the choir.
Stone’s most important earlier films about recent American history -– the Vietnam War films, JFK and Nixon -– were produced many years after the fact. In contrast, Stone's new movie World Trade Center appears in the midst of the ongoing war on terrorism the 9/11 tragedy ignited. This is an important difference.
Complicating matters more is the incendiary political context in which the film has been released. With not only new warfare in Lebanon in the background, but now news of a major new terrorist plot to destroy civilian aircraft in mid-flight, it is uncertain how audiences will respond to Stone. Will anyone want to see the film? And will audiences respond to it in the way the director intends, or will it be dismissed as the work of an aging ideologue?
The first question will be answered soon. That is, we will see within the next few days and weeks whether the public will be persuaded to attend screenings of World Trade Center at all. Of course, for just about any movie from a director of Stone’s notoriety there is a base-line audience that will want to see what the latest work is like. That is a far cry from a mass audience, however, whose tastes and inclinations are difficult to predict. Stone’s film may face a huge hurdle in this respect.
History shows that American audiences can be uneasy about seeing their uncertainties projected on screen. Whether a person was born then or not, most Americans know that the Vietnam War years were a time of enormous tension and controversy in the United States. Yet, during that controversial war, few Hollywood features directly confronted the issue. (John Wayne’s hawkish The Green Berets is the exception most people cite.) Even after the war ended, it was several years before there was any discernible public appetite for movies about the war. Then, of course, a flood of such movies came — The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Apocalypse Now, Missing in Action, First Blood, Rambo, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and so forth. The point is, however, that these were all well after the war was over. The movies about 9/11 that are beginning to appear are much closer to the now-historical event. They are also being released as the public is apparently becoming less confident the battle against terrorism is going in the right direction.
The other question may not be fully answered for a long time, though preliminary indications appear favorable for Stone. Again, it is useful to remember how initial audiences received movies about the Vietnam War. Although its reputation seems to have grown with time, initially many viewers were unhappy with Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now, for example. His hallucination-like depiction offended many viewers. His version of the war was not one they shared. Americans remained divided about the Vietnam War even when it was over, and they took their expectations with them to the cinema.
Audiences still take their expectations to the movies. When an audience does not harbor strong feelings, a compelling film has the chance to help shape what people think, as least to a small degree. When the audience already has strong opinions, however, the going gets tough. They may reject the film out of hand simply because they disapprove of its point of view.
Luckily for Stone, initial word about Word Trade Center seems generally positive. Perhaps more importantly for the film’s prospects for financial, if not artistic, success, is that it does not seem to have ignited a partisan divide. So far, it has not struck viewers as a polemical rant on the great national tragedy of contemporary times.