In this era of escalating terrorism anxiety, geopolitical volatility, racial unrest, economic angst and social strife, what America most definitely does not need is an uplifting movie about the World Trade Center attacks starring Charlie Sheen, a man who—when not making a mockery of his own public persona and once-thriving career—has gone on record, with InfoWars’ Alex Jones no less, to espouse inside-job “truther” garbage.
“We’re not the conspiracy theorists on this issue,” he told Jones in a 2006 radio interview. “It seems to me like 19 amateurs with box cutters taking over four commercial airliners and hitting 75% of the targets—that feels like a conspiracy theory”—sentiments which he’s refused to back away from, even as late as yesterday.
Directed and co-written by Martin Guigui (based on Patrick Carson’s play “Elevator”), this ill-conceived drama, about five New Yorkers trapped in a North Tower elevator when American Airlines Flight 11 strikes the building, is arguably the year’s worst. It’s a monumental testament to wrongheadedness, and one that sullies the reputation of everyone involved, including co-stars Gina Gershon, Luis Guzmán, Wood Harris, Jacqueline Bisset and Whoopi Goldberg, all of whom should have known better than to get in bed with Sheen (no pun intended) on such a misbegotten venture. Cast as a character study-cum-ticking-time-bomb thriller—think The Towering Inferno, except given a real-world context the film is alternately inert, clumsy, dull and schmaltzy. Worse, unlike United 93 or World Trade Center (which were constructed from genuine stories), it’s a wholly inappropriate appropriation of 9/11 for second-rate can’t-we-all-just-get-along make-believe that, in the end, is itself just pretext for deifying Sheen’s protagonist. No wonder it wasn’t screened for critics. It’s the sort of fiasco best left unseen, and forgotten.
Still, for those eager to enrage themselves over the course of 90 minutes-going-on-eternity, 9/11 offers a bounty of head-smacking miscalculations. Chief among them is its constant use of actual news footage from that fateful September morning (taken from the Katie Couric-Matt Lauer Today show broadcast), which is meant to hammer home the dreadful reality of the attacks, but instead casts into sharp relief how cheaply our national nightmare is being exploited for amateur-hour theatrics. Guigui routinely cuts to clips of the Towers being struck by planes, smoldering in the aftermath of the collisions, and eventually toppling to the ground, and while that imagery still has the power to elicit stinging tears, its presence here feels contemptible, as if it were being utilized as a device to bolster its otherwise paper-thin, cornball fiction.
That incessant contrast between the authentic and the artificial is enough to make the film feel like the basest sort of based-on-true-life feature—one that, knowing it has no substance of its own, throws heartbreaking calamity in your face in an effort to generate a sorrowful reaction, as well as to set up its wannabe-inspiring conclusion. By the time that telegraphed finale arrives, however, Guigui has indulged in so much misguided twaddle and hoary sentimentality that the only possible response is one of boredom mixed with a healthy dose of outrage. It’s a rare feat to make one want to both fall asleep and punch the screen at the exact same time, and yet 9/11 pulls it off with aplomb, along the way also leaving viewers more than a bit baffled over the reason otherwise capable actors chose to participate in the project in the first place.
As an elevator command center operator who does her best to radio reports to the trapped quintet, Whoopi Goldberg brings a measure of trial-by-fire anxiety and composure to her role. Like the rest of the cast’s performances, however, she’s undone by one-note characterizations that seek, at every turn, to bludgeon any traces of subtlety into submission. That’s most true of Sheen’s Jeffrey Cage, a famous billionaire (“The King of Wall Street”) who, despite being pressed for a divorce by his wife Eve (Gina Gershon), is actually a good guy who only acts nobly toward his spouse (whom he still loves), as well as the disparate souls with whom he finds himself stuck. Sheen isn’t terrible in what amounts to a sketchy feel-good variation on his Wall Street turn, but Guigui’s script does so little to complicate Jeffrey that he proves a saintly snooze, helpfully orchestrating escape attempts and patiently waiting for his ultimate martyrdom.
The rest of the group boasts even less dimension than Jeffrey, be it Olga Fonda’s kept woman (who’s a total blank), Bisset’s grandmother (an even bigger cipher), Luis Guzmán’s janitor (who mostly references his and his wife’s Puerto Rican heritage) or Wood Harris’ bike messenger (whose toddler daughter is celebrating her birthday, and who spouts some racist comments that are pooh-poohed and then quickly swept aside). For much of 9/11, they simply sit around the elevator, talking about their sole personality traits or backstory details, occasionally stopping to chat with Goldberg’s operator on the intercom box, or to try to open the elevator doors in hopes that they can reach safety. Things culminate in ways that are foreshadowed at the start (hint: Sheen’s Jeffrey knows how to survive inside a plummeting elevator, thanks to his knowledge of a 1945 Empire State Building catastrophe), albeit not before Guigui shakes and tilts his camera in a vain effort to gussy up the static proceedings.
More than for its middling action or its mediocre aesthetics (which also include one jaw-droppingly terrible rear-projection sidewalk shot), 9/11 is repulsive for its employment of that action, and those aesthetics, for detestable ends. No matter its feeble stabs at paying tribute to New Yorkers’ courage, compassion and heroic selflessness, Guigui’s film betrays the tragedy, and long-lasting impact, of September 11 by reducing it to merely a high-concept excuse for straight-to-VOD suspense and bathos—a failing exacerbated by its headliner’s own ignoble personal opinions on this very subject. The victims and survivors of 9/11, as well as everyone else impacted by it, deserve better.