When it was first announced that Oliver Stone would be making a movie about the World Trade Center attack, it is safe to say that even his most ardent admirers braced for the worst.
As David Ansen reports in Newsweek, when asked in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 what kind of movie he'd make in response to the attack, Stone "described a movie structured like a hunt, which would show how terrorism worked, from both the Arab and the American sides."
Now, if there is one thing viewers have learned not to expect from Oliver Stone, whose "JFK" practically pinned the president's assassination on Lyndon Johnson, it's evenhandedness.
But "World Trade Center" is not your typical Oliver Stone lalapalooza. Starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña as Sergeant John McLoughlin and rookie officer Will Jimeno, respectively, two real-life Port Authority cops trapped beneath Tower 2, it strenuously avoids controversy. Even "War of the Worlds" was more worldly. What little political content there is can most accurately be described as flag-waving. (The film's distributor, Paramount, specifically targeted the right-wing punditocracy in its marketing efforts.)
Atypical though it may be, "World Trade Center" nevertheless fits squarely into the ham-fisted Stone tradition. It's about "big" themes brought down to human scale, and it mainlines intensity. Stone is an intensity freak – the joke around Hollywood used to be that he was the only person who ever went to Vietnam to cool out. What better arena for him than ground zero?
The movie begins eerily with McLoughlin making his way in the predawn to the New York Port Authority, where he briefs his officers for what appears to be a routine day. When news of the first plane strike is confirmed – the loud, dismaying thump of the collision heard in midtown fills our ears – he swings his team into action.
Of the five officers buried beneath slabs of concrete and twisted metal, only McLoughlin and Jimeno survive as they wait 12 hours, trapped about 15 feet apart, for help to arrive. Gravely injured and unable to move or even see each other, they talk about their jobs and families in order to stay awake – to stay sane. They figure that if one of them falls asleep, both will die.
About half of the movie is taken up with these two men entombed in the dark, like players in a Samuel Beckett mindscape. Their flashbacks, such as McLoughlin's memory of teaching his boy how to use a saw, have a honeyed quality, as if they had been ordered up from a family album catalog.
For the rest, Stone, working from a script by Andrea Berloff, schematically intercuts scenes of the officers' families as they struggle to comprehend what is happening.
McLoughlin's wife, Donna (Maria Bello), refuses to accept the worst. Like many a hardened cop's wife, she has steeled herself to believe nothing that is not confirmed. By contrast, Jimeno's pregnant wife, Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), her extended family in tow, is distraught to the point of near panic.
Stone also works in a number of rescue subplots, the most prominent being the true story of Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), an ex-marine from Connecticut who sees what is happening on television, suits up and, believing he is on a mission from God, ventures into the rubble.
Karnes is the only major character in the film who speaks of payback. America is "going to need some good men to avenge this," he says, and in the end we learn that he subsequently reenlisted for two tours of duty in Iraq. The implication is left standing that Iraq was behind the attacks. In moments like these, I don't think the film can accurately be called apolitical.
In many ways, "World Trade Center" could just as easily have been about trapped miners. Stone wants to celebrate what he sees as the innate dignity of the common man. He is saying that people like McLoughlin and Jimeno and the others really do exist in this world. They represent the best of humanity because their love for family and faith allowed them to survive. (At one point in the blackness Jimeno sees a shimmering vision of Jesus.) Luck, according to this film, had very little to do with why these men are alive.
The good that human beings are capable of is the message of the movie, and perhaps it is the message that most people will want to take away from a 9/11 drama at this point in history. This does not mean, however, that the film should get a free pass just for being on the right side of sentiment. In the movie's terms, the heroism of McLoughlin and Jimeno is indistinguishable from their faith and love of family. The sanctimony here is laid on a bit thick. One wonders if the other survivors of the World Trade Center horror – only 20 made it out of the rubble – would be able to pass spiritual muster in the same way. If not, are they any less admirable?
Despite my strong reservations, "World Trade Center" is strongly acted and has sequences of undeniable power. At its best it shares with Stone's finest work a feeling for the imminence of death and salvation.
But in the end, as with Paul Greengrass's "United 93," one can't really discuss it simply as a movie. It's a phenomenon, a morale-booster, a barometer, an exorcism, a convocation. Grade: B+
• 'World Trade Center' is rated PG-13 for intense content, disturbing images, and language.