What if Oliver Stone were kidnapped and replaced by a walking, talking look-alike who did everything like Oliver Stone except produce the type of Sept. 11 film you'd expect from him?
With 1991's "JFK," the Oscar-winning director earned a special place in the hearts of conspiracy theorists. The man who gave us "Salvador," "Platoon" and "Nixon" has been derided as a political agitator and as a leading purveyor of gratuitous Hollywood violence for "Natural Born Killers."
But now, this lightning rod for controversy has reached out to the same groups who may have cringed when they heard he was making "World Trade Center." And perhaps the biggest surprise in the film, which opens Wednesday, is that Stone kept his pledge to keep politics out of the film.
Paramount Pictures even acknowledged several days ago that it hired Creative Response Concepts -- the PR firm behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Democrat candidate John Kerry -- to reach out to conservative groups.
Given that Stone is one of the country's most prominent Vietnam veterans, Paramount's employing this firm might baffle some of the filmmaker's longtime fans. But Stone has said for months that this film would be about courage and survival -- not politics.
Stone even points out that the two police officers at the heart of this film -- Will Jimeno and John McLoughlin -- wouldn't likely agree with his take on U.S. policy. But that hardly matters, he says.
"I can make a movie about them and their experiences, because they went through something that I can understand," Stone says. "Politics don't enter into it."
On Sept. 11, these two officers -- played by Nick Cage and Michael Peña -- rushed into the doomed Twin Towers and got trapped under 20 feet of rubble. For more than 12 hours, they kept each other alive, talking about their families and the things in life they love, and encouraging each other not to give up.
Politics, however, must be treated especially carefully when marketing a film about the most heart-rending moment in modern American history. Earlier this year, "United 93" became the first widely released film about Sept. 11, and it was a hard sell for theater owners, at least at first.
Some moviegoers complained when coming attractions for "United 93" began to run, and one New York theater stopped showing them. Nevertheless, the film went on to critical acclaim, earning $45 million worldwide and $30 million domestically.
But Stone's film might have an even harder time finding its audience. "United 93" focused largely on the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, after passengers tried to retake the cockpit. Unlike "World Trade Center," there were no images of the Twin Towers aflame. And, at $63 million, "World Trade Center" cost more than twice as much to make.
Stone has the added problem of coming off a bomb. His last film, 2004's "Alexander," cost $150 million and tanked at the box office.
Reaching out to audiences who wouldn't necessarily rush out to see an Oliver Stone movie is clearly Paramount's strategy, and the studio has already garnered some unexpected rave reviews.
"It is one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see," says conservative pundit Cal Thomas.
Over the past few weeks, the studio has also held special screenings for Sept. 11 survivors, and the families of those who lost loved ones. Last Friday former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani weighed in with his endorsement.
"My opinion or general feeling is that we need to be reminded of this, that we have to deal with it," he says. "We have to confront it. It is not just part of our past. It is part of our now. ... We have to deal with terrorism, so I think it's a good thing that we're reminded of it."