World Trade Center (United States, 2006)
Turning back the calendar to the morning of September 11, 2001 is a risky proposition for any director, and not to be undertaken lightly. Paul Greengrass succeeded brilliantly with his United 93 and now Oliver Stone, never one to back away from a challenge, has decided to tell another story under the 9/11 umbrella. His film, World Trade Center, comes unencumbered by the director's baggage. There is no political message. There are no conspiracy theories. And the camerawork is straightforward, lacking the over-the-top flourishes that have hampered some of the director's recent efforts. World Trade Center is Stone's most potent motion picture since Platoon, and may be the most accessible across-the-board since Wall Street.
There are thousands of stories that could be told about the events that occurred in Lower Manhattan on that fateful day. Stone concentrates on two of them. In total, 20 survivors were pulled from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. Two of the last were Port Authority policemen John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Peña). After entering the concourse between the North and South Towers shortly before 10:30 am, they became trapped in the wreckage after the collapse of buildings. While their respective wives, Donna (Maria Bello) and Allison (Maggie Gyllenhaal), balanced on the razor's edge of uncertainty, John and Will struggled to remain conscious long enough for rescuers to find and free them. The movie details their experience from when they awoke in the wee hours of September 11 until they lay in adjacent hospital beds 24 hours later.
Stone opens the film with a number of shots of "old Manhattan" - New York City as it was while the Twin Towers stood proud and defiant, one of the defining landmarks of a world-famous skyline. It's an effective way to take us back five years to another lifetime. We relive the horror of the buildings' destruction through a combination of news reports and the eyes of the first responders. The latter is a perspective that has not yet been explored in detail. Stone shows restraint in depicting the carnage. All of his shots of the burning towers are archived images of the crippled North Tower. When the World Trade Center falls, our perspective is not that of an outside observer, but of the men on the inside who don't realize the full extent of what is happening. There's a lot of noise and dust and debris, but John and Will surmise incorrectly that the concourse has collapsed, and nothing else.
During the second half of the movie, with John and Will trapped and unable to move the drama forward by themselves, Stone weaves in other plotlines. There's the story of ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), who drives from Connecticut to join the search for survivors. Then, most affectingly, there are the tales of Donna, who tries to reassure her children while inwardly succumbing to uncertainty, and Allison, who wonders how to tell her four-year old daughter and the her unborn child that their father is dead. Oddly, during World Trade Center's second half, the portions of the narrative focusing on the families are more compelling that the claustrophobic scenes of John and Will struggling to remain awake and alive.
The movie reinforces a theme highlighted by United 93- that heroism often rises from the ashes of tragedy. Many men risked their lives to free John and Will, and millions of others prayed for them. September 11 was a day that rocked a nation to its core, but it also brought the people of a city, a region, and a country together in a way that nothing else in the past half-century has done. It would be too facile to describe World Trade Center's message as being that every cloud has a sliver lining, but the movie stresses not the evils of 9/11 that live after it, but the good that is more easily interred and forgotten. (With apologies to W.S.)
For the actors, appearing in the film is a daunting task, in large part because of their responsibility to the men and women they are playing. The four principals were involved in the production process, although dissent was voiced by the widow of Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez), whose husband is shown shooting himself after being mortally wounded. The participation of the McLoughlins and the Jimenos put pressure on Nicolas Cage, Maria Bello, Michael Peña, and Maggie Gyllenhaal to be both accurate and sympathetic. They succeed. Their characters are shown to be decent human beings. They have flaws, but those flaws are de-emphasized to place the focus on their strength and heroism.
In its own way, this movie is as wrenching and powerful as United 93. It deals in an uncompromising way with subject material that some viewers are not yet ready to confront in a movie theater. World Trade Center provokes a range of emotional responses, resurrecting the horror of the moment but infusing it not only with a new perspective but with an element of hope that's as undeniable as the beam of light streaming through the wreckage. If there's a weakness - and it's minor quibble - it's that the hallucinations and flashbacks of the trapped men don't add as much to the narrative fabric as the filmmakers intend for them to do.
World Trade Center makes an excellent companion piece to United 93. The films have different styles and they present diverse perspectives of a day that has limitless faces. Both are thoughtful, intelligent, and emotionally potent. They provoke and challenge, asking us not only to face our memories but to question our future. By being less political than he has ever been, Stone offers a movie that can be embraced by movie-goers who sit on the left side of the theater, in the center, or on the right. It's an achievement, and it makes one hope that future feature films about 9/11 (and there will surely be more) will exhibit the same mix of dramatic force and tasteful restraint.
World Trade Center (United States, 2006)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Peña, Jay Hernandez, Armando Riesco, Maria Bello, Maggie Gyllenhaal
Screenplay: Andrea Berloff, based on the true story of John McLoughlin & Donna McLoughlin and William Jimeno & Allison Jimeno
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Craig Armstrong
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Pictures
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