Oliver Stone's World Trade Center will surprise those who have followed his career and might expect an in-your-face, full bore political statement, given the title and all too familiar subject: the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11. What Stone and writer Andrea Berloff, working with a true story, give us is a somewhat formulaic but quite gripping rescue story. If he focuses on the two men at the story's core, Stone also keeps implying the larger dimensions of that tragedy, but deftly rather than heavy-handedly.
He has an excellent cast to help. The redoubtable Nicolas Cage portrays New York Port Authority police sergeant John McCloughlin, a 21-year veteran with expertise in rescue operations gained from the 1993 bombing of the world Trade Center. When the planes hit, McLoughlin and a select squad commandeer a bus and head for the smoking buildings, not entirely sure of what has happened but certain that hundreds of people are trapped there and need to be evacuated. Among those who volunteer to go into the towers with him is young officer Will Jimeno (Michael Pena). When the first tower collapses, they and many others are trapped in the wreckage, both of them injured and pinned beneath heavy rubble
Both men have families, as the opening establishes and the movie keeps returning to. Indeed, in some ways, these shifts are more interesting cinematically. As Donna McCullough and Allison Jimeno, Maria Bello and Maggie Gyllenhaal convincingly portray the range of emotions the two wives go through as they learn of their husbands' plight and helplessly wait out the rescue operation. (Flashbacks from all four spouses fill out their histories and deepen the film's poignance.) In these "home"¯ scenes, too, Stone suggests the ripple effect the attack has caused in the country and the world: local TV news and CNN continually sift into the characters' lives, forming a commentary on the event's significance.
Meanwhile, Cage and Pena have the daunting task of interacting without being able to see each other or to move. The film slows way down as the two officers fight to stay awake, the tension of their waiting for rescue only occasionally relieved by some bits of dark humor. The darkness and claustrophobia are also broken when each man has a vision, though of very different kinds, which they interpret as signs they are ultimately going home. Again, in each case, Stone leavens and humanizes these visions by including some humor.
I have to mention one other actor, Michael Shannon as ex-Marine Staff Sergeant David Karnes. A civilian now, he feels called by God to don his uniform, make his way into New York, and find the people trapped under the wreckage. This figure"”again more amazing because true"”Stone almost underplays. Though he is pivotal to the plot, Karnes proceeds stone-faced through the police lines with the unflapped certitude of a man on a mission, a vocation.
There is much to enjoy here, visual and audible. The film and sound are beautifully edited, the attention to detail and authenticity remarkable. If the ending is a mite too easy, well, that's the way it actually happened. A footnote tells us that, of the hundreds trapped beneath the collapsed towers, only twenty were rescued. McLaughlin and Jimeno, both of whom were involved in the making of World Trade Center, were numbers 18 and 19. September11, 2001, is one of those days when all of us remember where we were what we were doing. (A young friend of mine recalls that the day before there had been an earthquake in Los Angeles, and he at first thought something similar had occurred in New York.) To his credit, Stone brings up those memories, the shared confusion and anxiety, the sense that the ground had shifted in some major way, without descending into sentiment or sensation. This is a film well worth seeing.