Some people were shocked when Oliver Stone announced he was making a movie based on the events of September 11. The director, known for polarizing audiences with conspiracy theories and radical politics, didnít seem like a natural fit for the uplifting true story of two Port Authority cops miraculously pulled alive from the wreckage of the twin towers. His motives immediately became suspect in some quarters. Was he going to turn his film into some political diatribe? Actually, when you stop and think about it, itís only natural to assume that Stone would make a September 11th movie; heís always been interested in people/events that changed the world, and this single day in modern American history certainly fits that bill. That said, World Trade Center finds Stone atypically restrained. The film has no political bent, no conspiracies, no cynicism. Despite the darkness of 9/11, this is Stoneís most optimistic film.
Nicolas Cage plays John McLoughlin, a Port Authority cop on duty the morning of September 11. When a plane crashes into one of the World Trade Center buildings, he and some of his fellow officers, including Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), head down to the scene. They enter a section of the WTC complex that is between the towers. Around the time they arrive, there are rumblings of another plane hitting the second tower, but no one can quite believe that to be true. McLoughlin and the others gather some equipment they will need to head upstairs and help evacuate people. As they walk, there are disturbing creaking sounds coming from above. Jimeno, in particular, is nervous.
The noises get worse and McLoughlin looks outside just in time to see giant pieces of rubble hitting the ground. He orders his men to run toward the elevator shaft. They get there just as the building collapses on them. The shaft provides some measure of safety, but not everyone makes it. A few die immediately; others a short time later. Eventually, McLoughlin and Jimeno are the only two left alive, and both are trapped beneath heavy rubble. Neither of them knows what has happened above, so they hold out hope for rescue. To avoid potentially fatal unconsciousness, the men talk to keep each other alert.
While they wait to be rescued, we meet other key players in their story, including their wives, Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal). They watch the events unfolding on the news, assuming that their husbands arenít at the scene. When word comes that John and Will went into the complex, both women struggle with the uncertainty of the situation. Thereís something particularly powerful about the way the film shows these two women struggling to be strong for their children but not really knowing how to respond. Donna and Johnís young son, for example, insists his mother get in the car and go to Manhattan to look for his father, even though she realizes that would be almost impossible. Other key characters include Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a Marine who leaves his job to search for survivors in the wreckage, and Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley), one of the rescuers.
John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno were two of only twenty people pulled alive from the remains of the World Trade Center. (They were numbers 18 and 19.) The film uses their ordeal to examine the intimate, human side of this great tragedy. The first half hour recreates the atmosphere of the day Ė the panic, the pervasive dust and soot, the image of papers floating in the wind Ė yet Stone wisely chooses not to show us things that are already seared into our collective memory. We donít see the planes crashing into the buildings, and there are only brief flashes of news footage showing the towers collapsing. The directorís real interest is in what he shows during the following ninety minutes Ė the way two trapped heroes bolster each otherís spirits in a fight for life, the way two wives grapple with the anxiety of not knowing if their husbands are dead or alive, the way rescuers optimistically dig through the rubble looking for survivors. World Trade Center takes a mind-bogglingly horrific event and looks at it from a very personal point of view.
While it lacks the overt political statements of Stoneís other works, I believe there is a message here. The filmmaker has been making the publicity rounds saying that people are ďalready forgettingĒ what happened. He doesnít mean it in a literal sense. (I mean, how can any of us forget?) What Stone means is that, with Americaís resultant anti-terrorism tactics dividing public opinion, we are in danger of forgetting the sense of unity and humanity that came immediately in the wake of 9/11. It was a time when our petty problems and differences suddenly didnít seem so important. We all felt so vulnerable that we relied on each other to get through. People made great efforts to help one another and to be kind to one another in extraordinary ways. Stone clearly doesnít want us to forget that feeling of oneness, the feeling that America is great because we take care of our own at any cost.
The only problem I have with World Trade Center (and itís not a huge problem) is that it does definitely feel like a movie. There are some attempts to add a little bit of gallows humor that seem out of place, as does an overly cinematic scene where Jimeno hallucinates seeing Jesus with a water bottle in his hand. And I was always aware that I was watching big stars reenacting the well-known events of the day. The brilliance of springís United 93 was that it used unrecognizable actors and a documentary style. That made it seem more urgent (and ultimately more haunting). I got completely lost watching that film because it made me feel like I was right there. In this case, the movieís casting and style put a slight distance between us and the subject matter.
This is not to say that the acting isnít good. In fact, itís often outstanding. Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena (who played the locksmith in Crash) have a real acting challenge. Because their characters are trapped, they can only act with their faces and their voices. Both men convey a range of emotions even with that limitation. We therefore come to care greatly about John McLoughlin and Will Jimeno. The best performance, though, comes from Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jimenoís wife. She flawlessly captures the panic and fear and utter helplessness that Allison surely felt on September 11. If thereís even a remote chance that her husband is holding on somewhere, then she is going to hold on too, as hard as that is. You understand all the conflicting feelings from Gyllenhaalís performance. I think they ought to just give her the Oscar right now. Sheís that good.
Some people will certainly avoid World Trade Center, just as some avoided United 93. Itís been only five years, and all that happened on September 11 is still fresh in our minds. Reliving it on screen may be too much for certain audience members. I fall into the other camp Ė the one that finds movies like this healing. It was particularly interesting to see the rescue efforts portrayed; I hadnít realized how complicated that process was. More than anything, thatís the point of World Trade Center. Brave people like McLoughlin and Jimeno risked their lives to help others, and others then risked their lives to help them. Itís amazing how such a dark day could bring out the best in people. World Trade Center is a moving tribute to that idea.
( 1/2 out of four)
World Trade Center is rated PG-13 for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes.
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