Sleeper Celluloid: Real Reviews of Fake Movies

A Review of Twenty

Director: Rob Marshall; Writer: David Koepp; Producers: George Clooney, Amy Cosgrove; Cinematographer: Roger Deakins A.S.C.; Edited by Anne Coates A.C.E.; Music by Howard Shore; Original Songs by Sir Elton John; Cast: Ben Foster, Ellen Page, Nick Nolte, Nicky Katt, Naveen Andrews, Tony Shalloub, Kal Penn, Adam Goldberg and Ned Beatty as Dick Cheney. 

(To see the official Twenty poster, click here.)

Twenty begins with the hapless Kahlil (Ben Foster), a young Saudi militant stuck in a cab in downtown Boston. Kahlil is juicy-eyed, nervous, and in need of a shave. He is well on his way to Logan International Airport when his taxi blows a gasket. A heated argument between Kahlil and his cab driver (James Remar) segues into a very expensive dance number on the Boston Expressway. The song examines the woes of early morning commutes, lifeless cubicle situations, and asks, most importantly, why Kahlil is in such a hurry.

Kahlil is the twentieth hijacker.

Producer Joel Rudenheimer, one of the most outspoken critics of Twenty, even in its development stages, told reporters at the Cannes screening, “I personally feel this is a subject the industry should leave alone. D-Day was about our last great war. It would have made a terrific musical. Same with Blood, Guts, and Country. They both had heart and gusto. This one’s got neither. It makes a charade of what happened that day. No, we will never forget, but Jesus Christ, guys, come on.”

Other naysayers included Speilberg, who appeared on Charlie Rose via teleprompter from Cambodia, where he’s filming Ho, the story of the North Vietnamese leader of the same name. The bespectacled visionary ranted for a full hour, describing Twenty as, “… a confused little mistake of a movie that’s neither a musical nor a comedy. Basically it does not exist. How can it? People can’t see something if they don’t know what it is.”

Director Lasse Hallstrom, who Sony considered for the project at one time, had a more relaxed interpretation. “The American public will not be able to come to terms with the horror of this event and reconcile it until they can come to terms with their own joy. This film, this marvelous achievement, places joy and horror side by side. That is why it is shunned. It laughs in evil’s smug and poopy face. In one hundred years, they still won’t understand it.”

Which raises the most important question: Does Marshall’s fourth film take a cold hard look at the events of that day and the heroes who shepherded the victims, the victims’ families, and the American people through it?

The events are barely even mentioned.

Marshall takes great liberties with a script that went through a record-breaking 162 writers and was originally penned as an action thriller about the descendant of one of the hijackers who goes back in time to try and stop the attacks. The film includes non-linear glances at one man’s squinty-eyed journey into the darkness of that day, culminating in his self-proclaimed call to lead and that man is Rudy Giuliani, portrayed by Nick Nolte. Marshall bookends each act with an oddly Gollum-esque portrait of Giuliani, who has an ever increasingly impassioned mock debate with himself in a bathroom mirror about a chicken covered in red ants. There is no journey from City Hall to ground zero, just five poignant scenes which serve as metaphors for the five stages of death and resurrection.

Director Oliver Stone, who covered similar terrain in 2005’s World Trade Center, interprets the film as, “… about as disjointed, nonsensical, unbelievable, and unfathomable as the events of the very day it purports to be documenting. The film’s a fucking joke. But don’t tell that to Dick Cheney.”

Stone is of course referring to the former Veep’s insistence on playing the part of himself in the picture, subsequently leading to Cheney’s first feature film role as Kirsten Dunst’s father in last year’s remake of Sixteen Candles, as well as the coveted part of The Judge in Andrew Dominik’s Blood Meridian, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s seminal novel. Cheney was vocal about his interest from the outset, claiming, “There exist individuals who would pervert history. And I for one, will not be perverted.” The “perverted” Cheney, a part that ultimately went to Ned Beatty, graces the screen for one small and memorable scene, in which he’s arrived early to a Pentagon briefing and describes the mechanics of sex with overweight women to a puppy-eyed intern. “You just bury your face in the pillow, son, and pretend she’s Tonya Harding.”

Although a mosaic of sorts, the film centers primarily on Kahlil, who  upon failing his mission, stops for a Starbucks and meets Jenny (Ellen Page). She offers him a free Macchiato and, in the one remaining line from the Diablo Cody polish, tells him, “Dude, you gonna googly-eye me till I go to goop or you ready to spray your B story all over this, son?”

While the rest of the country, and the rest of the world, gazes apishly at video loops and commentators offering insights into who is responsible and what the future holds, Kahlil and Jenny take walks in the park, read Byron and Bukowski fireside, soak in bathtubs where they encourage each other to find closure with their flaming hatred of their step parents, and ride roller coasters, and… while Gene Shalit calls it Love Story for terrorists and retards, others praise it as the feel-good romance of the year, while other others just don’t get the brusqueness of the juxtapositions.

Does Marshall lens a cavity search dance sequence at Newark airport, a throwback to Busby Berkley that thumbs its nose at TSA and the real life crackdowns in airport security? You bet.

Does a cadre of black-overalled, Puerto Rican dwarves set explosives in the walls of the towers in a musical number so clearly reminiscent of the Ooompa Loompas of old? Si senor.

Does a bearded and burqa-clad Osama Bin Laden (Johnny Depp) sing and dance his way through an Afghan village in celebration of the attacks in arguably the film’s finest number, Jihad Sandwich with Pickles, in a manner that echoes Fagan’s Reviewing the Situation in the 1969 Oscar winner Oliver!? Again that’s a yes and excuse me for saying so, but Marshall’s opting to only show Depp from behind made this a mighty brave little sequence, boys and girls. The point is this: Marshall’s taken the most sensitive subject in our history, flipped it on its side, and punched it in the kidney, showing us the possibility of the inherent joy amidst all that madness. Reminding the world that creation and destruction, love and fear, and Khalil and Jenny, can co-exist, must co-exist.

Although Marshall (who says he’s been receiving veiled death threats in the form of Bin Laden nesting dolls with a tiny wooden bomb at the bottom) was too anxiety ridden and paranoid to leave his hotel suite at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, he tweeted, “This was supposed to be my Dr. Strangelove. Instead, it’s become my White Dog #fuckmylife.”

Sony spent an estimated fifty million making the musical. Chairman Wayne Brown has since suspended all of its indie arm’s operations pending the outcome of Twenty’s September 11th  release. “It was a pre-emptive strike against his own movie,” said an executive at WB, “even though a picture like that had to have gone through Wayne to get made in the first place. This all sound familiar?”

“No one knows what [Marshall] is even talking about,” said actor Ben Foster, enjoying a Kangen water outside a French bistro in Los Feliz with his fiancée, actress Amber Heard, star of On the Road and Godfather Origins: Virgil Sollozzo. “Nobody cares. Fucking no one even wants to see this movie.”

Hopefully, the co-star of last year’s Django Unchained is wrong about that last part. Marshall’s taken all of his craft, packed it into a big black cruise missile, leapt astride, and rode it one-handed onto the collective movie screen of America.

And by doing so, perhaps he has saved us all.

Adam Cushman holds an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University. His short stories have appeared in The Mississippi Review, Trop, The St. Petersburg Review, El Portal and elsewhere. He teaches fiction writing at Writing Workshops Los Angeles and is the President of Red 14 Films. His novel CUT releases February 2014 from Black Mountain Press.