As was noted in comments, Sunday is not the same thing as Saturday, and perhaps in the future I should not make promises I cannot keep. Let us just say that yesterday did not go the way I wanted it to.

So: a fellow film-buff who I trust very much suggested that I see Oliver Stone's World Trade Center not because it is good, but because it is "interesting." And because he wanted to read my review of it. Well, here is the review. And I agree - World Trade Center is certainly not good, but it is interesting in the extreme: it is the film for which the word "problematic" was coined.

Stone and Paramount can talk as much as they want to about how the film is a tribute to the many men and women who died in the attacks, but they are wrong. I do not think it is because they are liars. I think that they, and writer Andrea Berloff, truly do think that the best way to honor the mass of dead Americans and foreign nationals is to focus exclusively on two people who survived. This is a nice story, and we respond more to nice stories than to sad ones.

The fact remains, however, that WTC desires us to identify with two Port Authority policemen and their wives, people whom we know from the beginning of the film will have happy endings to their stories. It does not show us the suffering and anguish of the families who greeted September 12th by mourning their dead. One scene late in the film involves the wife of one of the trapped policemen meeting the mother of a janitor trapped in the rubble. This woman is played by Viola Davis, and she is by far the greatest role and greatest performance in the film: she does not know how her story will end and we do not know how her story will end, and there is more truth in her fright and confusion than anywhere else in the film, where the characters are really just playing a waiting game, and not suffering from the hellish disorientation that the whole world experienced that day.

The players: John McLoughlin (Nicholas Cage) is the old vet who has seen everything and still can't deal with the chaos, Will Jimeno (Michael Peña) is the rookie who is successfully tried by fire. Donna (Maria Bello) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are their respective spouses, who largely run around freaking out, understandably. Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon) is the ex-Marine who views it as his duty to make it to the disaster site and do whatever he can. It's a perfect made-for-TV-movie cross section, and it plays out exactly the way it should, replete with an annoying heart-tugging string-heavy soundtrack (although one that thankfully knows when to shut up).

Let us take away the 9/11 setting for a moment. This is a clichéd set-up, made no better by being a true story, and a lot of it is frankly boring. Oliver Stone is a natural born stylist, but perhaps in order to more suitably honor the event, he largely chucks his bag of tricks out the window. Although I fear that even Stone is not so good a director as to be able to drag something interesting out of the endless footage of McLoughlin and Jimeno trapped under concrete. The men cannot move and cannot see each other, and most of this (the bulk of the film) is conveyed by a series of close-ups on their faces. I imagine that the intent was to make this "claustrophobic," but it fails. The film is very dark, which is a bold choice that doesn't work, and watching it is nothing else than tedious. Perhaps this could have worked with great performances (I can name great films, many of them by Ingmar Bergman, that consist of almost nothing other than close-ups), but neither Cage nor Peña has much in the way of natural chemistry, and Cage in particular seems hobbled by his desire to make sure the accent works.

Much better, both cinematically and in acting, are the scenes with the wives. Bello is an effortlessly great actress, and she is mostly effective here. The script never gives her a chance, as it does Viola Davis, to really express her anxiety, but Bello puts a bit of it in their anyway. Gyllenhaal is less effective with more to do, but the story around her is possibly the best part of the film, containing hints that life goes on as it must, even in the face of tragedy.

Let us bring back the 9/11 setting. This is an apolitical film, we are told. Which is not true at all, but it is much less political than we'd expect from a Stone film, and the politics are fairly incoherent. The character of Karnes, as he is used here, is largely about legitimizing our desire to strike out for revenge anyway we can. His last line is an indication that America is now fighting a war of vengeance, and we are told in one of a card at the end that he went on to serve multiple tours in Iraq. Karnes is constantly presented as an heroic and correct figure, although to these eyes he always seemed a bit unhinged, and there is no way to avoid the conclusion that Stone and Berloff want us to regard the Iraq War with fist-pumping enthusiasm. Combined with the film's general ignorance of the multitudes of dead, the effect is something like the Onion headline describing the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941: "Hot Dog! Now We Can Fight!"

Yet: when focusing on the women waiting, the hospitals full of injured people, or the news footage of anchors crying, the film becomes an elegy. A realisation that this terrible thing cannot be avenged and is cause for sorrow more than anger. In one particularly striking moment, Stone uses a montage of foreign news footage of people around the world mourning the attacks, and makes a point of ending with then-Iranian President Mohammad Khatami. And here the conclusion is just as unavoidable: "Remember when Iran was with us? What the hell happened to that?" This tension between rah-rah jingoism and multilateralism is jarring and strange, and leaves the film with a clear desire to engage in relevance, and a total inability to do so.

Which leaves the dead. "The Holocaust is about six million people who died," Stanley Kubrick once said, "Schindler's List was about 600 people who didn't." Whether one agrees precisely with that idea or not, it speaks to the great sin of Oliver Stone and World Trade Center: it was about two people who didn't die. And while Spielberg's film had scenes, such as the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto or the ashes of burning bodies falling like snow, that spoke to the horror of the world around Oskar Schindler, here you could count on one hand the number of dead bodies we see. One man leaping from the tower is left to stand in for every single one of the civilian deaths in the film. The first title card at the end of the film reminds us that 2,749 persons from 87 countries died in the attack, but neither of those two facts inform the film. It is a story of heroic survival, and while it is good to remember that heroism can occur in the face of evil, it is more important to remember the evil, and to point out that McLoughlin and Jimeno did nothing whatsoever before the towers collapsed. Not one life was saved because of what they did. I was moved by the film, I cannot lie about that, but I felt very dirty about letting a film move me for such primitive reasons (anyone who lived on that day must surely feel something when seeing those images again, even if fictionally recreated), and that is not the stuff of art.

An honest film about 9/11/01 must return to tragedy, for that is what that day was. That there were individual triumphs, I have no doubt, but it is not cathartic to focus on those: it is cathartic to confront the darkness directly and know it for what it is, and know that good will always exist to oppose it. World Trade Center focuses only on the good. It turns the defining act of horror of the current century into an excuse to feel good about ourselves and our country. It reflects the same myopic need to see ourselves in the best and most comforting light possible that arguably led to the attacks in the first place.