World Trade Center

on August 09, 2006 by Annlee Ellingson
This year, a half-decade since 9/11, two major studio films have tackled the terrorist attacks onscreen. Their approaches couldn't have been more different. For every choice that Brit Paul Greengrass made in directing Universal's "United 93," Oliver Stone went the exact opposite route for Paramount's "World Trade Center." Whereas Greengrass hired a cast of unknowns, Stone's leading man is one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Whereas Greengrass' characters remained largely anonymous, to the point that the audiences doesn't even learn their names, Stone introduces us to the intimate inner circles of their lives. Whereas Greengrass employed his signature documentary-esque observational style, Stone takes an intensely interior approach.

The result is a slick production from an accomplished filmmaker with a sure hand, without the highly stylized technique that has earned the director his detractors. Unfortunately, the highly polished gleam also suffers from Hollywood sentimentality.

The film centers around John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), two Port Authority police officers who agree to enter the World Trade Center in an effort to evacuate the buildings after they're infamously struck by two commercial airplanes. While inside gathering equipment before heading up, the first building collapses, burying them under the rubble. Trapped for 12 hours, the heretofore virtual strangers keep each other alive by talking about themselves and their families until miraculous help arrives.

What Stone achieves in the first two acts of the film is a remarkable impressionistic vision of what it must have been like to experience the events of that day. Like in "United 93," a sense of impending doom looms over the film's dialogue-free opening moments as New York, photographed with palpable affection both for the city and its people, awakens, stretches and greets the dawn. Then, with the shadow of a plane, a thud and a shudder, the tranquility shatters, replaced by flashes of terror and horror: bystanders gaping into the sky, people covered in blood and ash, bodies falling through the air. When the men turn toward the buildings, it's like they're heading into a storm. Key to the movie's visceral texture is its soundscape -- burning and exploding, followed by eerie quiet and the metallic groan of the buildings pressing down on the men.

Meanwhile, juxtaposed against the claustrophobic wreckage, where the men lie unable to even wipe away the mud caking around their mouths, their wives and children await word of their fates in the softly lit, idyllic settings of their home lives. As mother-of-four Donna McLoughlin and pregnant Allison Jimeno, Maria Bello (wearing blue contacts that are lifeless and distracting) and Maggie Gyllenhaal give honest performances, with Gyllenhaal's portrayal of a woman barely holding it together particularly frank.

There's some beautiful writing here by scribe Andrew Berloff -- an onlooker describes the smoke blanketing the scene as a curtain drawn by God, "shielding us from what we're not yet ready to see." And Stone has crafted some wonderfully cinematic moments, such as a brief glimpse into what McLoughlin might have done differently that morning had he the chance to do it over again, and the distinct visual analogy between his body rising out of the wreckage and a corpse being pulled from a grave. And, although "World Trade Center" is an uncharacteristically apolitical project for Stone, a montage of the world's reaction serves as a reminder of the goodwill we've squandered in the war-torn years since 9/11.

Such subtlety is undermined, however, as the film approaches its conclusion. Amid the awesome task of extracting McLoughlin and Jimeno, an impossible endeavor achieved solely due to the tenacity of the rescue crew, are the saintly apparition of McLoughlin's wife among the wreckage, prompting his gushing upon their reunion something cliche about staying alive for her, and the newfound sense of purpose experienced by peripheral characters. A Marine in the coda importantly declares, "They're going to need some good men out there to avenge this," and an alcoholic suddenly reclaims sobriety after years off the wagon. There's an over-earnestness at work here that's beneath Stone and that this story is powerful enough to do without. Starring Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Stephen Dorff, Jay Hernandez and Michael Shannon. Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Andrew Berloff. Produced by Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Moritz Borman and Debra Hill. A Paramount release. Drama. Rated PG-13 for intense and emotional content, some disturbing images and language. Running time: 129 min
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