When word leaked from Hollywood a little over a year ago that Paramount Pictures was making a feature film about the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, many thought the studio was extremely brave. The movie, which opens in two weeks, would coincide closely with the fifth anniversary of the tragedy.
First there was the obvious concern about timing and sensitivity. Would audiences, in the US especially, be ready for a celluloid rehash of events so recent and painful? In the end it was another film, United 93, from the British director Paul Greengrass, which took the plunge first. Released in the spring of this year, it won mostly rapturous reviews and did well - though not brilliantly - at the box office.
Even more arresting, however, was the news that the director of the Paramount film was to be Oliver Stone. On the one hand, it seemed a natural choice. The 59-year-old Stone has a long track record of revisiting moments of modern history in his movies, most notably the Vietnam War in Platoon and Born on the 4th of July, as well as points of crisis in the American presidency, as in Nixon and JFK.
At the same time, however, giving such a tricky project to Stone seemed downright rash. Sometimes painted as the bad boy of Hollywood, he had a reputation for making the occasional flop - think Heaven and Earth, another Vietnam War chronicle - frequently indulging in far-fetched conspiracy theories, in JFK especially, and revelling in extreme on-screen violence, such as in Natural Born Killers.
Above all, Stone was just so damned political. His anti-war agenda was plainly laid out in the Vietnam films. More recently, in 2004, he had released his second documentary, about President Castro, called Looking for Fidel, a portrait of a country deeply in love with its leader. Who knew what kind of lefty, conspiracy nonsense he would try with this film, simply titled World Trade Center?
The powerful conservative right was the first to erupt: Stone's liberal instincts were certain to turn the film into an anti-Bush, anti-war, give-peace-a-chance tirade that would be a dire insult, they claimed, to the country and to the families of the victims. The only thing worse would have been to have chosen the leftist documentary-maker Michael Moore. The conservative Washington Times newspaper raged that the hiring of the "conspiracy-addled" Stone to direct the film was a "maliciously inspired choice". As the pundits of the right are discovering now, however, even they can be dead wrong sometimes.
Like United 93, World Trade Center does not try to chronicle the vast span of the tragedy of 11 September but restricts itself to one particular saga within it. For Greengrass, the focus was the heroism of passengers on board the fourth hijacked airliner, which crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. This time, we have a mostly factual retelling of how two police officers rushed into the South Tower to help their colleagues moments before it collapsed. The officers, played by Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena, are the film's main characters, struggling to stay alive for almost 24 hours beneath mounds of rubble, ash and dust, while their families and spouses wait on the outside for news of their fate.
Although we are still some time away from the film's general release - it comes out on 9 August in the US, but British audiences must wait until 29 September - a buzz is already in the air. It is buzz, of course, that is far from accidental, but skillfully generated by the marketing folks at Paramount.
In many respects, the promotional campaign for this film has been different from the traditional. Next Thursday, it will get its red-carpet premiere in Manhattan, but there will be none of the usual attendant hi-jinks, like post-premiere parties. (Guests for the opening of United 93 at least got a late-night supper at the Four Seasons restaurant.)
This is the city, after all, where the attacks actually happened and almost 3,000 people perished. In the same spirit, studio bosses ordained that there should be no billboard advertising in New York or in neighbouring New Jersey, where so many of the victims lived. We have, however, been seeing the cinema trailers and television spots in the rest of the country.
Meanwhile, rather than inviting journalists from around the world to a one-day junket in a hotel in New York or in Los Angeles to push the movie as a studio might normally do, Paramount yesterday wound up a 10-city tour of the US, screening the movie in each place and introducing guest audiences to cast members and to the two men the film celebrates, police officers John McLoughlin (Cage) and Will Jimeno.
These and earlier test screenings have delivered a few surprises. The first, which apparently even Paramount wasn't prepared for, has been the film's appeal to teenagers. The young adult demographic is key for ensuring big box-office for a film, but when the subject matter is history, studios don't usually bother with it. But it was Stone, who has two children of 10 and 14 years, who began telling Paramount that the film would have particular resonance for teens. They were alive when the attacks happened, he reasoned, but were too young at the time to fully to understand what was happening. The film almost gives them a second chance to process those events and to express their feelings about them more fully.
"Oliver believed in his heart that young audiences would respond in a profound way," Gerry Rich, marketing president for Paramount, told the Los Angeles Times last week. The first screenings showed that Stone had a point. "They loved the movie," said Mr Rich. "Kids who were seven, eight or nine at the time didn't know enough. It makes perfect sense that they'd want to know what really happened."
Altering its marketing tactics accordingly, Paramount crafted new advertising spots aimed at young audiences. "Every generation has its defining moment," one spot intones against music from the band Coldplay. "This was ours." Meanwhile, the popular music channel MTV last night aired a special "Town Hall" forum of young adults discussing the film and what it means. MTV is owned by Viacom and so is Paramount.
None of the advance screenings were more important, however, than the one during the Washington DC stop on the 10-city tour. In the audience were several opinion-makers from the conservative right, including writers from the National Review as well as Cal Thomas, a syndicated columnist and pundit of Fox Television, and Brent Bozell, the president of the highly conservative Media Research Center, which has led the campaign against violence in Hollywood.
This may have seemed like opening your battle tent to your most feared enemy. But the move was deftly calculated. The New York Times revealed last week that Paramount had hired an outside firm called Creative Response Concepts to reach out the conservative right and to romance it in advance of the film's release. This is an outfit that has a long history of working for clients of the far right, including Bozell's Media Research Center as well as the Christian Coalition. Creative Response Concepts was also the group which helped to craft the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth campaign which so successfully attacked the Democratic candidate John Kerry in the 2004 presidential race, depicting him as a traitor to the country because of his anti-Vietnam War positions, a conflict in which he fought.
The irony is inescapable. Stone, with his own record of anti-Vietnam War campaigning, was one of the first to condemn the Swift Boat spots in 2004. Contacted by The New York Times last week, he insisted that he had had no knowledge of the relationship of Creative Response Concepts with the film. And he noted that, when it comes to promoting films, he himself has "hired publicists in the past that had skeletons in their closet", adding: "It's not a holier-than-thou street here. It's an impure market."
The lamb-like reaction of Stone may be understandable. The reaction to the film among the Christian right has been one of astonished admiration. With one or two exceptions, the conservative commentators who have for so long loathed Stone have suddenly found it in themselves to embrace and celebrate him. First, this will help to put otherwise sceptical, Middle-American, Republican-voting bums in cinema seats. But also, the suddenness of the right's shift of opinion has itself generated an avalanche of commentary in newspapers, on blogs and on news channels across the land that is free publicity the likes of which Paramount could hardly have dreamt.
Apparently, the story of two men under the concrete and cement as told by Stone contains all the mantras of the Christian right - endurance, trust in God, commitment to family and patriotism. Add the subplot of two wives waiting for word of their husbands and you have a veritable paean to family values.
"Oliver Stone, in recreating what happened that day in the lives of two resilient men, has done more than any politician's speech could ever do as we approach the fifth anniversary of the attacks," enthused Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of the online edition of the National Review. "And yes, really: that Oliver Stone. JFK Oliver Stone." Eating its words of a year ago, The Washington Times said in an editorial last week that "Mr Stone has made a truly great movie".
Writing on Townhall.com, Bozell acknowledged that he had expected Stone to deliver a "tiresome, loathsome, Bush-lied-thousands-died production designed to titillate the Michael Moore left-wing fringe". Yet he has been busy e-mailing roughly 400,000 members of his Media Research Center and the affiliated Parents Television Council, urging them to see the film. In a press release, he called it "a masterpiece [that] must be seen by as many people as possible", and added: "It's more than a movie - it's a vivid reminder of the love, heroism, faith and patriotism that comprise the fabric of our country." Fox's Thomas put it even more pithily: "It is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see."
World Trade Center cost a not insignificant $65m (£34.8m) to make. Only when it comes out will we see whether it will have a sufficiently broad appeal to make its money back. (United 93's box-office in the US only reached $31.5m.)
So far, Paramount must be feeling pleased with how things are looking. They are counting on teens and now, presumably, they are counting on red-state (Republican) voters to turn out as well. If they are not careful, however, they may end up losing the one demographic they imagined they could rely on: liberals and lovers of the old Oliver Stone, for whom all this conservative gushing might be too much to stomach.